It seems we are now at the point where the great theoretical experiment with identity politics and critical studies that has been conducted in our universities for the last couple of decades is finally beginning to bear some empirical fruit…and the results are, as this report shows, troubling.
I’ll admit I’m somewhat late to this party (story of my life), as I only really began to have serious concerns about the harm the humanities was doing to students about five or six years ago, when I started work on posthumanism and the posthumanities. Some more prescient than me saw this coming a long way back and were sneered at for their trouble; but it suited many, many more to turn a blind eye and build their careers.
What’s been decisive for me on this topic is the emergence of evidence showing that many of the so-called ‘critical theories’ (and the dogma they foster) peddled in humanities’ programs have actually been harmful to the humanities. The great theoretical experiment has failed and it seems to me irresponsible to keep pushing the ideas that drove it: instead, we need to figure out what to stop things getting worse.
The problems facing literary studies as a result of this failed experiment are particularly bad, according to the MLA study linked above:
Jobs in English are down 10.7 percent from last year.
Jobs in foreign languages are down 12 percent from last year.
English had 851 jobs listed last year, which is lower than any year on the chart (which goes back to 1975-76).
Foreign languages came in at 808, which is also lower than any other year listed.
Both areas are well below the numbers for jobs in the year after the recession hit, 22 percent fewer in English and 21 percent fewer in foreign languages.
This has been a problem long in the making for literary studies: student enrollments are dropping (why study something that will only indebt you to the tune of thousands of dollars and won’t even qualify you for a job at Starbucks?), high-quality hires are not being made (and in some cases I am familiar with, mediocre faculty members don’t want high-achievers around to highlight their lack of productivity; academic politics can be as catty as Mean Girls) and course offerings so niche that they are utterly divorced from reality (these are frequently driven by faculty’s antiquarian and activist research agendas); the list goes on, unfortunately.
And, as Jonathan Haidt recently pointed out, the problems caused by identity politics and ‘critical thinking’ are no longer confined to the universities; they are now also showing up in high schools, fuelled in no small part by teachers who are themselves the products of Education programs saturated by ‘critical thinking’ dogma. So, ill-prepared students will be leaving high school without necessary basic skills and arriving at universities armed with tools that are designed for activism, not learning, where they will encounter staff who don’t think of teaching as their primary job (most of whom have never even been trained to teach).
Things may be bad now, but they’re likely only going to get a whole lot worse when the broken parts overlap to form one big dysfunctional system.
“A wide-ranging, informative and engagingly written book on the emergent field of posthuman studies”
—Stefan Herbrechter, Research Fellow, Coventry University, UK
My latest publication, a trade academic book from Bloomsbury Academic just came out at the start of March, 2017. It’s called Posthumanism: A Guide for the Perplexed and it’s available from Amazon, libraries and select bookshops worldwide. It explores how humans and humanism are changing through interactions with technology, science and medicine; it considers how advances in the fields of technology, science and medicine challenge and redraw the usual distinctions made between humans, animals and machines.
I must admit that this book had something of a difficult birth: the half-completed first draft of it was stolen, along with my computers and back-up drives, in a break-in at our house in Vancouver in October, 2013. I had started work on the book again, not a little disheartened, when, one night in February, 2014, the writing process encountered another setback: our house was flooded with sewage back-up during a power outage, which caused the sump-pumps to stop working. I also had the great good fortune to discover the sewage back-up by falling into it in the dark (not a night I’ll soon forget, let me tell you). We had to leave our house so the restoration could be completed, and so began a long odyssey of moving from temporary accommodation to temporary accommodation, while the world’s most incompetent crew of ‘restorers’ (thanks for nothing, Sevicemaster), spent the next six months doing a job we were assured would last only six weeks.
During this disruptive peripatetic existence, I was working on the book whenever I could. But the book had begun to change from what had been the half-completed stolen draft. I found that as I researched, I was becoming more and more skeptical of the ‘science and technology studies’ approach to technology and science favoured in the humanities; that same approach has also informed a lot of what has been written about posthumanism. It seemed to me that such an approach was severely limited in what it could say about science and technology because it could not properly get to grips with the science and technology it was purporting to criticize/analyze. In practice, such an approach is confined to making shallow comments about ‘representations’ of technology and science, which wind up making ill-informed (and often outlandish) claims about technoscience that cannot help but put off those who actually know something about how science and technology actually work. I resolved that I’d try to avoid such shortcomings by giving my reader a more technically informed overview of the technoscientific advances–such as gene editing and artificial intelligence–I discussed in the book. My approach also meant that I had to try and speak across the deep divisions that separate the sciences from the humanities: not an easy task.
Then, in October 2015, just as I was finishing up the complete draft for submission to the publisher, a now infamous fight over Halloween costumes at erupted at Yale. This fight, in its turn, set off a whole spate of outlandish ideological demands (and frankly outrageous claims) by students (and several of their ideologically-driven professors) at universities in America and elsewhere. As a result, I started to become more and more uneasy about (and mistrustful of) the state of the humanities, especially about what had been passing for the so-called ‘critical thinking’ in the humanities for decades. I decided that the book should therefore reflect my growing concerns about that form of ‘critical thinking’ and the harm it does the students subjected to it. I finally submitted the manuscript to the publisher in June, 2016.
Oddly enough, I now think looking back that if it hadn’t been for the break-in and subsequent delays, Posthumanism: A Guide for the Perplexed would have been a boring-by-the-numbers-academic-book.
I think the book may also hold the dubious distinction of being the first academic book to use the word ‘kek.’
Note: The following post is a taken from the Teaching page on my website. I’ve decided to post it as a blogpost because it introduces and pulls together some of the issues that I plan on discussing in upcoming blogposts.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site, I am a firm believer in maintaining a strong interrelationship between teaching, writing and research.
However, teaching in universities is all too often viewed by faculty as an inconvenience or a hassle. It’s surprising just how much complaining tenured faculty members do about having to teach. (Now, obviously, I don’t mean that all tenured faculty find teaching to be a chore, but faculty complaints about having to teach are certainly not uncommon.) In fact, a good way of measuring this is to look at how many tenured and tenure-track faculty have voted to give themselves reduced teaching loads (for example, going from a 3/3 or 2/3 per semester load to a 2/2, 2/1 or 1/1 load), on top of seeking out teaching releases, which allow them to avoid even more classtime. The recent attempts by Vassar College faculty to give themselves 2/2 loads offers useful insight into this issue, and useful context for the practices and attitudes with respect to faculty teaching loads can be found here. The latter link also delves into the issue of unproductive tenured faculty, a topic I’ll be exploring in a future blog post. Meanwhile, this is happening to their non tenure-track colleagues.
This, to me, is a terrible shame. Not only that, it is very shortsighted: the plain and simple fact is that, without students and the tuition they pay, there would be no faculty, no departments, no universities. Perhaps there’s a (albeit weak) case to be made for this bad attitude among faculty in the sciences where important, impactful work often takes place. But such an attitude to teaching is unbecoming in the humanities, where ideological posturing, outmoded sources and tedious antiquarianism–often spatchcocked with poorly grasped critical theory–masquerade as knowledge that is then doled out to students with little or no thought given to how such ‘material’ will allow them to engage, navigate and understand the modern world they inhabit.
However, this bad attitude is downright bewildering (and deeply ironic) when expressed by faculty in literary and cultural studies departments–or, at least by those who still do a modicum of research. Such individuals appear to view teaching actual real-world skills like proficiency with digital tools, research methodologies, composition and critical thinking, as somehow beneath them; it’s almost as if they can’t see how the university sees the humanities as a whole. And so, all that ‘unimportant’ stuff gets farmed out to underpaid contingent faculty, who are, in turn, looked down upon; and those lucky–yes, lucky, because ‘talent’ plays no role in getting an academic job–enough to have tenure can then teach the ‘super important’ stuff like ‘images of grief from the C16th.’ Surely, however, such high self-regard is unwarranted since data shows that some 82% of academic articles published in the humanities are never cited by their peers, never mind read by non-academics. But, one might argue, doesn’t the value of teaching and reading literature lie in expanding the social abilities and humanity of others? Nope.
So, while I’m pleased to note that all the articles I’ve published fall into the 18% of humanities studies that actually are cited, data like the above made me really start to re-evaulate what teaching in literature and the humanities is all about. Throughout my career, I’ve tried hard to distance myself from the aforementioned attitudes and blinkered viewpoints, which are certainly not uncommon. To that end, I’ve tried to connect my teaching to my research: all of my research publications, with the exception of my first book, which was my PhD dissertation, have arisen directly out of the various courses I’ve taught over the years at UBC.
Of late, however, even this practice no longer seems to me to be enough: indeed, I often worry that what passes for ‘critical thinking’ in literature and humanities departments amounts to an active de-skilling of students. In particular, I have begun to wonder if pedagogical theorizing by the likes of the Marxist educational theorist, Paulo Freire, as well as notions of a ‘hidden curriculum’ (the belief that ‘lessons’ teach not just specified content but also the ‘hidden’ transmission of norms, values, and beliefs), are largely to blame, since they both often produce what looks more like cognitive bias and conspiracy theory than actual critical thinking. This thinking transforms classrooms into ideological battlegrounds and students into activists, with little room for thought given to the stuff to be learnt. So, we have a not-so-merry-go-round, where ideologically-driven suspicions about lesson content create condescending half-baked theories about the unconscious–Freud preserve us!–transmission of politics in classrooms, which in turn create political counter-measures that import yet more politics into the classroom…
So, where might all this lead? It would appear that such an ideologically-driven approach to education is already bearing terrible fruit: witness, for example, the ‘demands’ made by students at Evergreen College in the US, which seem to have little to do with important or essential content and more and a lot to do with enforcing identity politics. Now, Evergreen College is an admittedly extreme example, but it is far from being the only recent example of what I would call ‘unreason’–literally, the privileging of ‘feels over reals’ in educational and learning settings. And, as this type of educational approach has become increasingly widespread, more and more humanities students have left or are leaving colleges and universities, buoyed-up with the kind of misplaced confidence that only ideology can give and believing they have a simple solution to all that ails the world. The reality, however, is that many students leave their humanities education with very few actual real-world skills and find that their degrees do not open doors to well-paying jobs. Now, let me be absolutely clear here: this situation is not the fault of the students; it is the fault of ideologically driven and out-of-touch professors who do each and every one of their students a massive disservice by turning them into textbook examples of the Dunning-Kruger Effect (see image above). The humanities is well on the way to irrelevancy, piloted into the ground by people who seem to think there is actually nothing wrong. And I understand that this is a bitter pill for humanities students to swallow, and it gives me no pleasure whatsoever to have to say it.
As it stands, these problems seem mostly confined to the humanities; however, the sciences should not get too smug. Lysenkoism has shown that science is not immune to ideological infestation, and there are worrying signs that ideology is once again making its way into the sciences, especially biology. Nevertheless, I still think the humanities can learn a great deal from how things are done in the sciences: think, for example, of the intellectual honesty and integrity that is fostered by the scientific method, a wonderful tool for rooting out cognitive and ideological biases; the sciences are also constantly engaging with and trying to understand reality, a thing that the humanities seems content to deny exists. And, perhaps, this denial explains the increasing out-of-touchness of the humanities: if you don’t believe reality exists except as a projection of your own phenomenological experience and/or as a discursive formation something created by language, then why bother trying to understand it? Strangely, a lack of belief in the reality of reality doesn’t appear to bother such deniers when they turn on their computers or need a medical diagnosis or want to fly to Paris.
My growing concerns about the intellectual dishonesty in the humanities, coupled with my increasing appreciation for science and its investigative methods, are the main drivers of the shift in my more recent research interests, pushing them towards an engagement with information, cybernetics and technoscientific advances. In particular, I am interested in questions about how such realities are changing humans into ‘posthumans’ and how those changes signal the need for a transformation of the humanities into the ‘posthumanities.’ In short, there must be a reconfiguration of the humanities that both understands and incorporates the science and technology that is changing C21st humans. As I argue in Posthumanism: A Guide for the Perplexed, if the humanities imagines that it does not need to understand advances in science and technology in their technical aspects and mathematical specificity, but treats them instead as opportunities for baseless speculation, reckless scaremongering or grinding tedious ideological axes, then why should anything the humanities has to say about such topics ever be taken seriously by those who do truly understand them? Afterall, what’s to be learned by listening to willful ignorance? And if, as I suspect, the gulf in the understanding of technoscientific topics that separates the science from the humanities is destined to ever-widen, then how can the humanities ever learn anything from the sciences? Can such a humanities claim to teach anything truly useful about the realities of the modern world to its students? Is this not to actively de-skill students?
The concerns and questions I’ve raised here form the foundations of one of my current research projects, a book on reason and unreason, as well as one of my upcoming classes at UBC.