Why Fund Humanities Research?

In recent years I have come to believe that the long-term structural vulnerability of the humanities—which now is of such duration that one can no longer use the term “crisis,” as I often have in the past—is exacerbated by the fact that there is no widely accessible or accepted rationale for research in the humanities. There are many defenses of education in the humanities, and Helen Small’s The Value of the Humanities offers a comprehensive and thoughtful assessment of them; but few people outside academe—and all too few administrators within academe—can give you a succinct, convincing explanation of why we need new research in the humanities.

For my part, I tend toward a soft instrumentalism when it comes to education in the humanities, believing as I do that the study of the history and varieties of human creative expression and modes of interpretation is necessary (though not sufficient) for a critical cosmopolitanism that understands that any of us might be wrong or only partly right, and that therefore seeks to devise means of sustaining pluralist societies in which forms of substantial disagreement do not devolve into violence and oppression. But this view is often compatible with an understanding of the humanities as the study of valuable monuments and artifacts, or as the measured assessment of the wisdom of the ages. It can quite easily leave behind the “study” part of that formulation and become an argument for the value of the monuments and artifacts—the archive—of the humanities, rather than an argument about why we need new research into that archive and new explorations that produce emergent archives. Which is to say that it does not, by itself, explain why we need new work and new modes of interpretation in the humanities; after all, the sciences may produce new knowledge (this is their widely-accepted rationale), but no one produces new wisdom. Arguments for the public humanities and even the undergraduate humanities proliferate, while arguments for the value of humanities research remain rare—and rather thin where they do exist. Indeed, such arguments are often elided with appeals to “alt-ac” careers, in which humanities research is valuable because it can lead to employment outside academe. I strongly support institutional support for alt-ac careers for humanities PhDs, but I believe we should be able to justify humanities research within academe as well. This should be of especial concern to directors of humanities centers and institutes because it is essential to our jobs to foster and promote such research—and because, in recent years, that aspect of our jobs appears to be changing in subtle ways as we are increasingly asked by our institutions to serve as the public face of the humanities.

It is appropriate that the founding of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes dates from 1988, because by that point, humanities centers and institutes had by and large taken on a specific mission and character—as incubators for interdisciplinary research that sometimes could find no ready departmental home. (Although this is an aside, I think it is an important one: in my eleven years as an institute director, I have found that interdisciplinarity is not all that difficult; what is difficult is interdepartmentality, for reasons I will discuss in a moment.) There were a couple of institutes whose founding predates the emergence of interdisciplinary research in the humanities—the Institute for Research in the Humanities at Wisconsin-Madison and the Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies at Penn State—but it is indicative of the era of their founding that they were conceived according to the model of the Institute for Advanced Study, as sinecures for distinguished senior scholars. Not until the 1970s and 1980s did we see the widespread proliferation of the kinds of humanities institutes we are familiar with today, and their emergence is part of the broader transformation of research in the humanities that saw the advent of leading theory journals such as Critical Inquiry, New Literary History, and diacritics as well as the founding of the School for Criticism and Theory.

Such institutions, like humanities institutes, provided new modes of and new rationales for humanities research, which more often than not was taken to be synonymous with something called “theory.” It is an aspect of our history that some humanists are now willing to underplay or disavow, since it produced a backlash among traditionalist scholars as well as journalists and writers for smart general-readership magazines. Indeed, by 1988, when CHCI was founded and I was finishing a dissertation, the antagonism between cutting-edge humanities scholars and traditionalists/journalists/generalists had become so toxic that new humanities research was being dismissed and ridiculed in the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and the Atlantic in terms no different than those deployed in explicitly conservative organs like The New Criterion. And although some forms of theory were plausibly construed as obscurantist and jargon-laden, it seemed to me at the time and it still seems to me today that the work that really upset traditionalists and intellectual conservatives wasn’t the stuff that was unintelligible to general readers; it was the inquiries into the histories of race, gender, class, and sexuality that were intelligible to general readers, and to students, and which have permanently transformed the landscape of education in the humanities to this day, thereby causing the decline of the humanities.

When I took the helm of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities (IAH) at Penn State in 2010, I tried to shift its focus to the kind of research undertaken by our peer institutes in North America and around the globe, which seems to me to be led by the institutes founded in the 70s and 80s together with more recent arrivals like the Simpson Center at the University of Washington and the Jackman Institute at the University of Toronto. The first thing I did was to create a postdoc program, and I will explain in some detail how that went. My predecessor, in the course of her interview with me, told me that she did not believe that postdoctoral fellows would come to Penn State; I replied that the collapse of the academic job market left us with a frighteningly deep talent pool, and, somewhat less cynically, that Penn State would indeed be a good place for postdocs doing interdisciplinary work, particularly (given the institutional mission of the IAH) work that spanned the humanities and the arts. And yet I was ambivalent about the idea even as I proposed it. On the one hand, these postdocs were real postdocs, not visiting teaching appointments dressed up as postdocs; the initial teaching load was one course per semester, and our first two postdocs were also asked to offer some public presentation of their work. (We have since dropped the teaching load to 1/0 and require that the postdoc put together some kind of symposium or public event as well as offering a presentation of his or her own work.) On the other hand, the postdocs were only one year long, which meant, of course, that they had to begin seeking jobs elsewhere pretty much as soon as they arrived. (I eventually decided to offer two-year postdocs biannually.)

Our first ad was pitched to what you might call post-humanist research; under the heading “Being Humans,” we announced that we were especially looking for new Ph.D.s working at the boundaries of the human, whether this be construed as the intersection of humans and animals, humans and the biosphere, humans and artificial intelligence, or intraspecies categories of humans created by forms of disability. It was, noticeably, a job ad inflected by the interests of our Science, Technology, and Society Program, of which I was an affiliate faculty member and which I was hoping to leverage as a way of establishing more robust exchanges among the arts, humanities, and sciences. We received 45 applications in that first year, no fewer than five from students of Donna Haraway. We wound up hiring one young scholar, Kris Weller, working on structures of care that subtend human relations with animals and administrations of disability (a Haraway student) and another, Jennifer Rhee, working on robotics and AI in postwar Japan and the US.

As an aside, we had the misfortune of welcoming Drs. Weller and Rhee to Penn State just as the STS Program was being eliminated– a move which dealt a severe blow to interdisciplinary research in the humanities and sciences at Penn State and led to the loss of some critical faculty members. Our first two postdocs wound up offering their courses in a zombie STS program in which students obviously had no incentive to enroll. But in their year at Penn State, they made valuable and lasting connections with Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, the Department of Philosophy, the College of Information Sciences and Technology, and the School of Theatre.

Our next three postdocs were equally impressive, and in one way more so: each of them rose to the top of an applicant pool that now exceeded two hundred annually. Ida Meftahi came to us from the University of Toronto with a project on the history of dance in twentieth-century Iran. As you might imagine, this was a dissertation– now a book, titled Gender and Dance in Modern Iran: Biopolitics on Stage and published by Routledge last year– that addressed high and low culture, from Russian-influenced ballet to the demotic dances of the street; gender and sexuality; private and public; and pre- and post-revolutionary Iran. Dr. Meftahi established connections among Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, and the dance department in the School of Theatre. Craig Eley came us from the American Studies program at the University of Iowa, where his project investigated the history of recorded nature sounds. I admit that at first the idea seemed a bit quirky to me, but in the course of our interview with Dr. Eley he convincingly persuaded us that his work opened out from bird calls to such matters as the history and technology of recording outdoors; the history and technology of soundtracks; the history of avant-garde music; the history of ideas about nature and silence; and even the composition of the so-called “golden records” carried beyond the solar system by the two Voyager spacecraft. Dr. Eley’s course was cross-listed between English, Music, and Penn State’s Department of Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Management, whose incoming head loved Craig’s work in part because his own research involved noise abatement in national parks.

I used to joke that although every single one of our more than 200 applicants dutifully described their work as interdisciplinary, even if it were only a matter of reading literature together with film, we were shooting for a form of interdisciplinarity that bridged French and metallurgy. With Craig Eley’s work, we were almost there; we certainly had dealings with a department that had never thought to articulate itself to the humanities.

And our next postdoc pushed things even further. Heather Davis came to us from Concordia by way of a two-year postdoc at Duke and a string of visiting appointments (I’ll get back to that), and her work is on the history and philosophy of plastic. Not plasticity, à la Catherine Malabou, but plastic, the substance. Dr. Davis’s project was inspired by the desire, shared by so many scholars in the Anthropocene epoch, to find ways of opening out onto nonhuman time scales, and as she put it in her interview, she chose plastic in part because it’s not uranium. More immediately, we are soaking in it. And over the three years Dr. Davis has been with us at Penn State, she has made connections among art, philosophy, and chemical engineering. We finally have our version of French and metallurgy.

But Heather Davis’s trajectory is also a warning. Indeed, of these five scholars, only Dr. Rhee has landed a tenure-track job. I am compelled to conclude that institutes like mine might well be creating a new class of academic employment off the tenure track, that of the wandering postdoc minstrel. Each of these scholars is doing extraordinary work, the kind that gets eager solicitations from university press editors (Davis, for her part, already has two impressive edited collections to her credit). But that work, the kind of work that humanities institutes exist in part to foster, is apparently so extraordinary and so interdisciplinary that no one department wants to devote a tenure line to the scholar doing it. This seems especially true for a scholar like Dr. Meftahi, since Middle Eastern Studies in the US seems to have no room for historical analyses of dance.

This may be an important indicator of retrenchment in the humanities, but if so, it is a paradoxical kind of retrenchment in which the system of scholarly communication seeks out and rewards strong interdisciplinary work at the same time that individual departments in colleges and universities hunker down and vote to replace their retiring Victorianist or European history scholar with a new Victorianist or European history scholar. And I think this has implications for humanities research in general, and, to return to where I started, our public rationales for humanities research. Because I have begun to worry that that research is not finding a secure institutional home in North American academe.: The kind of research supported by my institute, and institutes like it, seems increasingly interstitial; I might call it “quasi-institutional,” since it is being supported by presses like Routledge, Minnesota, and Duke, but it is not finding a permanent tenure-line home, which also means that it is not finding its way into the curriculum. I asked each of our postdocs to offer their courses at the advanced undergraduate level, but needless to say, they could not offer them on a regular basis as could any of our tenured or fixed-term faculty.

So this is where I get my sense of bitter ambivalence about the state of research in the humanities. The research itself is profoundly engaging. Building on the work of the last three or four decades, it is opening new avenues of inquiry into the full range of human expression and variation as well as unprecedented and radically interdisciplinary inquiries into the relations between humans and the nonhuman worlds, from bacteria and lichens to birds and bees to plastic and the polar ice caps. But it remains institutionally precarious, and so far, I can find no widely disseminated general argument for why it should be conducted at all, let alone incorporated into the fabric of the university and the graduate and undergraduate curriculum. Perhaps devising such a rationale could be a job for the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes; because disciplinary associations have obvious limitations (being disciplinary associations), there may be no institutional body in the humanities better positioned to undertake such a task.