Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Explaining Ourselves

The present political and economic climate for higher education, including history and the humanities, is very ominous. State-supported institutions, like the one at which I work, have been absorbing significant budget cuts from hard-pressed state governments for years.

The federal government's ongoing reckoning with a public apparently unwilling to authorize the collection of additional tax revenues, while demanding increasing funds for entitlement programs, stands to make this situation even worse.We have witnessed this at Northern Illinois University Libraries, where the March 2011 budget deal hammered out by the president and the Congress, which reduced funds available to the U.S. Department of Education's Title VI program by 40%, led to the loss of our Southeast Asia Digital Library project. Eleven other institutions supported in similar international education digitization projects also suffered a complete loss of funds. I would imagine that amidst current discussions of the federal deficit and debt ceiling, agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Science are bracing themselves for additional cuts.

This is not only about state and federal agencies' increasing inability to support history, the broader humanities, and higher education in general. It is also about the cost of higher education, which is presently increasing at an unsustainable rate. Pay Pal founder and billionaire Peter Thiel has argued that a college education is a bubble and a bad investment. A recent publication in The Atlantic has described higher education as  "an industry that has largely ignored cost efficiency and scalability."

The purpose of this post is to argue that in this climate, historians and humanists in higher education need to provide policymakers and the public with a clear explanation of why we are deserving of support. One's first instinct may be to recoil from such a direct request. Isn't the value of history, the humanities, and higher education in general self-evident? As scholar-professionals, aren't we above the dirty work of currying public favor, especially in a cultural climate marked by considerable hostility to science, the historical record, and higher education in general? Well, apparently not. In a climate marked by shrinking resources and increasing demands upon them, we need to explain ourselves. Everyone hoping to receive support from any government does. Those who ignore this debate will risk being left behind in one way or another.

Historians, humanists, and other representatives of higher education should use the web to reach the public in new ways. State-supported institutions of higher education are generally vigilant about communicating with legislators who provide funding, documenting what that money produces. But I would argue that individual teacher/scholars need to appeal to the public directly. Right now, to my knowledge, historians and other humanists do a bad job of this. If anyone actually reads this blog, I may well receive messages saying "I give public lectures!;" or "What about public television?;" or, "What about museums?." These are certainly not inconsequential efforts and institutions, but they represent an outreach mechanism that has changed little in at least 30 years.They do not seem to have been effective in building broad-based popular support for history and the humanities.

Many historians, humanists, and other academics use the web for research - accessing journals and collections, and communicating with each other via services like H-Net. But there is at present little attempt to use the medium to reach the public with a discourse aimed at non-professionals.

Starting this discourse can begin when historians and other scholars use the web to provide the public with brief discussions of their interests, findings, and methods.A short paragraph added to an individual faculty member's departmental web page is a start, but I believe short video clips of approximately 2-3 minutes can allow individual teacher/scholars to reach a wider audience. I can imagine that most practitioners might respond by saying "My work is so specialized that a lay audience could never understand it." To my mind, this was an assumption applied to the web more broadly in its early days. Few people thought that substantial communities would emerge online for the discussion of esoteric subjects like the history of eugenics  or architectural stained glass. I would argue that if academics were to discuss their research online, making an effort to use accessible terminology, they might be surprised at the attention they attract.

I have of course touched on this general subject in previous posts to this blog, arguing that the projects that I've developed at Northern Illinois University Libraries are an attempt to bring historians' findings, and their methods, to a general online audience. Today, I argue that the tremendous pressure for universities to cut costs makes it incumbent upon every scholar and academic department to demonstrate their unique value.

To my mind, there are two related questions that need to be addressed here: the value of in-person university teaching and the value of faculty members' scholarly research.  I will first consider the issue of university teaching and learning.

The Atlantic has outlined a vision of centralized instruction in higher education, in which online courses taught by superstar academics become a part of the curriculum at many smaller, less-prestigious institutions. This initiative does not propose to do away with local instructors completely. Rather, on-campus relations would be managed by personnel acting in a capacity quite similar to that of teaching assistants in a lecture course at a large research university. Institutions partaking of this type of centralized instruction would reap cost savings by retaining these instructors at a lower rate of pay than that presently provided instructors and dramatically reducing the number of faculty with an opportunity to earn tenure.

I believe that, while this vision may seem utterly dystopian to most members of the academy, it needs to be taken seriously. This is not to say that I embrace it. Rather, I want to emphasize that dismissing it out of hand will not make it go away. Institutions of higher education, and particularly non-elite public institutions, already face growing pressure to cut costs and reduce the rate of tuition inflation. These are likely to increase.

Historians and humanists, like most other professors, have long argued that knowledge is best transferred by face-to-face instruction.  As a graduate of small liberal-arts college, I certainly believe that this is true. But in practical terms, the rise of huge lecture courses in which instructors only lecture and hold limited office hours, leaving most direct student contact to teaching assistants, has already devalued it in many institutions. The rapid growth of online-only higher education like that provided by the University of Phoenix has also provided administrators and public officials with an example of low-cost teaching and learning. The pressures for what The Atlantic has called "efficiency and scalability" are immense and, in the context of non-elite institutions, may be irresistible. Historians and other academics' challenge is not to hold the fort and throw back the forces of distance learning and cost-efficiency. Rather, it is to gain the political traction necessary to exercise some influence over the shape that these developments may take.Historians, humanists, and other academics can attempt to gain this traction by discussing the broad themes, presumably manifest in the historical literature, that they present in individual classes.

So, what of research? As we all know, scholarship is a collaborative enterprise. In the historical profession, superstar scholars write syntheses from the raw material provided by countless monographs. If the number of teacher/scholar positions available were to decrease by, say, forty percent over the next twenty years, the work of producing these monographs would slow down dramatically. As a scholar, I would mourn this development. But I don't believe that we can expect much sympathy from the general public on this front. Rather, it is incumbent upon scholars to demonstrate how they do historical research, and how their individual projects touch the lives of non-historians. A simple emphasis on how historical understanding grows from an analysis of the existing historical record would make an outstanding contribution to a public discourse that often seems unaware of this fact. When pressed, many historians argue that our work contributes to an historical consciousness that in turn facilitates good citizenship. We could easily begin to engage the public by making this argument online, showing how specific pieces of evidence shed light on the past and our present circumstances.

I do not believe that the introduction of new priorities and arrangements in higher education will be a uniform process. Rather, it will be subject to many of the same political pressures that affect other public policy decisions. If scholars were to describe their research in an online format, as in the case of the short video segments I have proposed (and hopefully in other, far more creative ways), they could attract the interest of various members of the public. With further effort they could create constituencies for themselves and become a part of the process of interest-group politics. These allies could help to remind administrators and legislators of  historians and other humanists, as well as their universities', real value.

A recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education has reminded readers how academics seeking to bring their work to a public audience can face negative consequences in a tenure and promotion process often singularly focused on research. My proposal is clearly at odds with this widely-recognized aspect of academic life. A focus on research  may have been appropriate in a Cold War era marked by the American public's apparent willingness to support universities in the name of national competitiveness, prestige, and defense. But this approach is problematic in a political context marked by increasingly sharp criticisms of higher education. Many universities have become increasingly adept at documenting how they contribute to local and national economic development, but historians and other humanists have largely failed to make a case for their contributions to a broader common good. Individual scholars' online discussions of their teaching and research can begin to fill this gap, but I would argue that university administrators need to embrace and encourage faculty outreach as an activity contributing to an institution's future viability and survival.

This is not a sunny vision of the future in which, if everyone explains their research to the public, every university and every department gets to keep all of its budget lines. I have not discussed how academics, often lacking in technological skills, would produce videos discussing their work, or other such materials, much less present them on the web. It will of course be much easier for those at wealthy institutions to find the technical support necessary to do so. Also, it will likely be much easier for historians of the American Civil War to make online allies than historians of, say, medieval women. Many scholars' findings may arouse the ire of culture warriors who wish that the historical record, or fossil record, were otherwise. Nevertheless, I suggest that those who can use the web to make their work interesting and accessible to the public, and attach themselves to the types of interest communities that the web seems to spawn, may have a better chance to survive the present and future shake-out in higher education.


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