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In the Near Future, Only Very Wealthy Colleges Will Have English Departments

Adapt (not publish) or perish

Zhao !/Creative Commons

Within a few decades, contemporary literature departments (e.g., English) will be largely extinct—they’ll be as large and vibrant as Classics departments are today, which is to say, not very active at all. Only wealthy institutions will be able to afford the luxury of faculty devoted to studying written and printed text. Communications, rhetoric/composition, and media studies will take English’s place. The change isn’t necessarily an evil to be decried but simply reflects how most people now generate and read narratives and text—they do it on digitally based multimedia platforms.

Why should college students read narrative prose when they get their fill of stories from television, cinema, and interactive video games? Narratives currently live in many different media, and there should be nothing wrong with academics considering them alongside print narratives. Defenders of the traditional curriculum mostly believe students need to read these printed texts if they are to be truly educated, cultured members of our society. That’s the gist of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and many an essay from right- and left-leaning critics alike, including Adam Kirsch’s recent essay “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments.” 

The so-called culture war that raged around Bloom’s book through the 1990s amid concern that including the disenfranchised’s voices would dilute (white, European) culture has largely passed, and yet the anxiety about English and the humanities in general lingers. The trouble was never the danger to culture but to print culture. As long as literature departments remain beholden to print culture, to the study and transmission of printed texts, they will continue to fade in relevance and prestige. Period-based (print) literature courses will continue to vanish in favor of disciplines that study and instruct students in contemporary media platforms. We need only to look at how successfully film and television migrated out of literature departments and into departments and schools of their own. If the present trend continues, the same will happen with digital media. This erosion of literature and its associated print culture is really what concerns Kirsch.

Unfortunately the digital humanities (DH) scholars who responded to Kirsch evaded this fairly obvious point in favor of detailing the importance of their research and accompanying (ironically print) book, Digital_Humanities, which Kirsch judged a “jargon-laden manifesto and handbook.” The fact that these scholars choose to explain their digital inquiry sub-field with a print book just underscores the inability of many literature and other humanities Ph.D.s to move beyond the printed book. An open-access PDF exists of that book, but that file is a digital replica of the printed page, and the essays it contains are easily recognizable as the scholarly essays that you'd find in any scholarly collection published in the last 50 or so years.

The Modern Language Association’s (MLA) recent report on the future of doctoral education exhibits a similar tension between the status quo and need for reform. Doctoral students are the future of the academic humanities, and the changes the MLA recommends for their training show how they think the profession at large will (or needs to) evolve. Among the suggestions was a plea for graduate students to learn more technical skills, such as text mining, data visualization, and other very non-humanistic sounding software tools. They recommend this course so that the legions of un- or underemployed Ph.D.s will be more competitive for vestigial tenure-track jobs and, more importantly, for alternative academic careers in archives, libraries, and other domains. But even while recommending that shift, they left in place the dissertation, or the production of a large research-based, book-length monograph. Alternative projects, especially collaborative ones, will likely never pass muster in the humanities as qualifying a graduate student for a Ph.D. And so, the legacy of print is questioned but remains largely untouched.

If the humanities are to survive, if they are not to become as marginal and small as classics departments, they will have to pay more attention to the variety of media narrative now lives in. The overview in Digital_Humanities of the book’s history and development as a tool is an example of that. Another recent essay collection edited by Kate Hayles and Jessica Pressman, Comparative Textual Media, implores humanities scholars to regard print as one of many media they can study. Fortunately it’s a print book, so maybe some of the intended audience will go to the library, check it out, and read it. Such a shift, however, would raise uncomfortable problems for the extant faculty: Why should students then study literature and not media more broadly? Why not pursue communications or design classes instead of composition?

These are all uncomfortable questions that the authors of Digital_Humanities evade in their response to Kirsch, and that evasion no doubt makes people like Kirsch all the more suspicious of them. The assertion that the humanities have always been technological because books are a technology (albeit an old, familiar one) is a bit like claiming industrial era steel factories are just as technological as a blacksmith’s anvil and hammer. Certainly, but the analogy ignores how the automation and massive scale alter workers’ conditions (and employment prospects) and how the economics of mass production affect quality of life. Scholars performing data mining or other computational analyses of massive data sets have a very different relationship to text and cannot perform a hermeneutical study of narratives with those new tools. Indeed, “distant” reading was meant to get away from such the hermeneutic methods the humanities have used until now. The authors of Digital_Humanities admit this (to a degree) but downplay how shocking the change it brings to the humanities disciplines may be.

Whatever the consequences for morals, Western civilization, or humanity itself, there’s no reversing this trend. Kirsch’s vision of the humanities is on the decline, and even if traditionally oriented scholars in the humanities maintain their levees against the digital influx, they’ll eventually fail as the funds flow to these new areas of study.