From the News column of the February 2007 Perspectives

A Wake-up Call for the Humanities

Robert B. Townsend, February 2007

Even though some of the specifics differ for history, the report on scholarship for tenure and promotion from a task force set up by the Modern Language Association offers a wake-up call about the health of the humanities in higher education (the text of the report is available at www.mla.org/tenure_promotion). For those who look to academia for employment, the picture they paint is fairly grim. Only a fraction of the PhDs in fields of English and foreign languages (barely a third) will make it to tenure. And the PhDs that do make it on to the tenure track are subject to an ever-escalating set of expectations, and an increasingly fragile apparatus for satisfying those demands.

One of the most striking aspects of the report is the assessment of the odds of making it from a PhD to tenure. It seems to add up to a one-in-three chance of making it through. It is important to note, however, that the main point of the MLA report is not to assess issues of supply and demand in academia, or to question training that focuses on monographs, which may bear little relation to most PhDs' future careers (though they do encourage a substantial rethinking of "the entire graduate curriculum for students confronting a particular conjuncture of intellectual, academic, technological, and economic circumstances today").

The MLA report focuses on the lives of those who make it onto the tenure track, and the barriers and hurdles they face along that career path. Here again the report offers some rather troubling findings. At a time when university presses are under increasing pressure to produce cookbooks and local interest publications instead of monographs, the monograph requirement for tenure is expanding. And it is expanding not just among those institutions devoted to research, but also at colleges nominally devoted teaching, such as liberal arts colleges.

We can identify a similar trend in AHA surveys of history departments. In a survey of history departments in 1979, department chairs reported that teaching was twice as important as scholarship in the determination of promotions and salaries at their institutions. In a survey on tenure practices I conducted three years ago, those expectations were approaching parity. Even though the opportunities for publication seem much better in history than in the languages and literature fields, the pressures on the university presses to behave like trade publishers point to a precarious situation for our field as well.

The MLA report offers a number of suggestions for fixes to this situation, but none of them are easy and none of them come without certain risks and costs. The proposal that seems to be receiving the most attention is the recommendation for increased reliance on new media forms of scholarship. The authors of the report seem a bit pessimistic about this possibility, but I think that is contradicted by the results of the Gutenberg-e program. We have found that departments are receptive to digital scholarship so long as it is properly vetted. The departments seem flexible as events and opportunities require. The impediment lies in creating those opportunities, or more precisely, in finding the funds to pay for such opportunities. Alongside issues of funding, I think we also need a more nuanced understanding of the range of forms new media scholarship can take.

The other important recommendation is the encouragement to institutions to do what they do best, and to align their tenure expectations accordingly. It does seem fairly absurd that someone at a liberal arts college, with a 4-4 teaching load, might have to produce a monograph to receive tenure.

This report clearly deserves further attention from all humanities scholars concerned about the future of academia.

—Robert Townsend is the AHA's assistant director for research and publications. This article is adapted from an entry written by him for the Association's blog, AHA Today.