Don’t Save the University—Transform It

“Why read and write about literature while the world burns?” Because, in working to end the oppression faced by so many, the humanities can help.

What’s next for the digital humanities? And how might they be part of changing our collective futures? As universities across the country reach the end of this unprecedented year, Public Books and Digital Humanities at MIT present a four-part series examining the role of the digital in the life of scholars and societies. In this moment of global reckoning around issues of virological, ecological, historical, and moral concern, some of the field’s top thinkers here ask how digital media and methods continue to challenge, harm, sustain, and liberate—and they show how investigations into the relationship between the digital and the human have only just begun.

Stephanie Ann Frampton

“Why read and write about literature while the world burns?” This question framed the fall 2020 Introduction to Graduate Studies in Literature course I taught for the master’s in English program at Salem State University—and also framed my own despair. Dispensing with the traditional survey of theory from Plato to Derrida, I introduced students to the history of English as a discipline, the shifts augured by the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, and the possibilities offered by public and digital humanities. Yes, we read theory—Marxist, critical race, intersectional feminist, queer, disability, postcolonial, Indigenous, and abolition—with an eye toward the ways theory can position our work in the humanities as tools of resistance.

If we are to ensure the long-term future of the liberal arts, we must reframe and rethink how we teach our students about the work that the humanities can do in the world. While the humanities have been dramatically sidelined in the past, such changes are crucial to demonstrating how valuing them anew offers us ways to reimagine the university as a site of justice.

For public higher education, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the effects of a long decline in public funding. For years, colleges and universities have been eking out their continued existence through austerity measures: making small, often unstrategic cuts to budgets while attempting to maintain operations under increasingly tenuous circumstances.

Now, they have been confronted with the financial challenges of the pandemic. These include refunds for auxiliary services like housing and dining, the cost of remote learning, the predatory educational-technology sector rushing to provide “solutions,” the cost of cleaning and testing protocols, and declining enrollments from a student population unsure of whether to take on the financial burden of postsecondary education amid a public-health crisis and the attendant economic crisis.

Having already embraced austerity, colleges and universities are helpless before the pandemic’s new challenges. Indeed, there is nothing left to cut.

Three stimulus packages from Congress have staved off imminent closure for most universities. But this has far from solved the longer-term institutional challenges of the untenable funding model of privatization, coupled with demographic shifts that leave particular regions vulnerable to the “enrollment cliff,” a projected drop in the numbers of students attending college that looms by 2026 due to the precipitous decline in the US birthrate from 2008 to 2011. Continuing the austerity model—that is, managing these issues through furloughs, layoffs, and program closures—remains on the table. Meanwhile, upper administration and boards struggle to carve out a new, more sustainable model for higher education, or face closure.

As happens in such situations, attention to metrics like enrollments and credit hours prompts these leaders to identify “profitable” programs through their business-intelligence or other data-driven metrics. While this is valuable data, the tendency of boards and presidents to view it piecemeal—department by department, major to major, credit hour to credit hour—puts lower-enrolled majors in a precarious position. Failing to take into account the cost of delivery of programs, the role of service departments in supporting majors with higher enrollments through general education, or the ways liberal-arts programs subsidize other areas of the university often seems to lead to a familiar conclusion: the humanities and social sciences are areas to cut.

Such cuts were once a tragedy; now, they are unconscionable. We need the insights of the humanities now as much as ever. Black, brown, and Indigenous people continue to face unabated violence and brutality, aided and abetted by legal and judicial systems. The racial and ethnic disparities in health care that have always existed in the United States have been laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black, brown, and Indigenous communities. Centuries of inequities born from Indigenous dispossession and racial capitalism have finally started to garner attention in the public sphere.

Our moment is now. People in the United States must be prepared to work toward and demand an end to the ceaseless oppressions that so many face. In this urgent work, the humanities can help.

If we are to ensure the long-term future of the liberal arts, we must reframe and rethink how we teach our students about the work that the humanities can do in the world.

But at a time where the humanities are under threat, how do we envision this work might continue?

Some rightfully decry the effects of neoliberalism on higher education and harken to an idealized notion of the purpose of the university, grounded in the liberal arts, as offering access to education for all. These discourses often fail to consider that this ideal of the university never existed in the first place.

In fact, the history of higher education in the United States has been beset by a crisis of purpose from its very beginning, as noted by theorists like Thorstein Veblen and John Thelin. Disciplines as we know them today only began taking their present shape in US higher education in the early 20th century. The first universities founded in the United States were not created for all but for a class of white men who would serve as self-appointed leaders of a new nation. It is true, of course, that shifts in demographics, the expansion of public higher education through the Morrill Land-Grant Acts in the 19th century, and larger numbers of Black, brown, and Indigenous people entering predominantly white institutions starting in the late 1960s have increased educational attainment over time.

Nevertheless, disparities continue to exist. Universities have not effectively grappled with their roles in systemic racism, which plays out across the university: boards, administration, faculty, staff, curriculum, student life, athletics, and partnerships with corporations and the government. Nor have they begun addressing their historical and ongoing participation in Indigenous dispossession and genocide.

If the university truly wants to justify itself through the liberal arts, the university must change—and the humanities must change too. This imperative requires reframing and rethinking the work that the humanities can do in the world: humanities engaged in and deeply connected to the material realities of oppression in our communities.

Public and digital humanities have redefined the role of the humanities today. Scholars working in these areas, in collaboration with communities, are convincingly making the case for the value of the humanities, whether addressing historical inequalities or those of the present day. Projects like SlaveVoyages, for example, shed light on the history of slavery, while projects like COVID Black demonstrate how the legacies of slavery and racial capitalism shape how communities are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Equally crucial public- and digital-humanities work in Latinx, Native and Indigenous, and Asian American studies tackles links between the inequalities of history and the present.

From the early work of scholars like W. E. B. Du Bois forward, Black, brown, and Indigenous scholars have been the vanguard of public humanities. Indeed, they have demonstrated precisely how the humanities can promote awareness and understanding of Indigenous dispossession and racial capitalism.

However, universities have failed to appropriately value and recognize this work. The outputs of public- and digital-humanities scholarship look different from the monographs and journal articles highly prized by hiring and tenure and promotion committees. This work is often interdisciplinary and does not fit neatly within the discipline-based structures of academic departments, thus adding further challenges to its evaluation—and valuation. Scholars of color and Indigenous scholars, who often pursue this work, contend with these challenges of genre and interdisciplinarity on top of the routinized racialized and colonial inequalities they experience in the contemporary academy. Thus, the very scholarship that demonstrates the value of the liberal arts is undermined by our own faculty peers, who are unwilling to consider a more expansive notion of what constitutes “scholarship.”

How, then, should these public humanities be valued? More importantly, how might the university reorient itself toward such humanities for the public? This requires that faculty advocate for recognition of interdisciplinary research and scholarship that takes untraditional forms—and to create opportunities for their students to do this work.

I could see glimpses of this future in my fall 2020 class. In their final projects, students applied what we had learned to their own personal and professional goals in a genre of their choice. While some chose to explore the scholarly-essay genre, the project yielded a variety of results that demonstrate the value of digital and public humanities. These included high school curricula, public-humanities projects, and grant proposals for digital-humanities projects that engaged deeply with questions of race, sexuality, and disability.

Many of these students, particularly those who are in-service teachers, are currently implementing their projects and seeing the work the humanities can do in the world. In the students’ final reflections on the course, the dominant theme was one of possibility—through the course they had learned that the possibilities of the humanities extend beyond academic audiences alone and are vitally connected to the most pressing social issues of our day.

If we can communicate that sense of possibility in the humanities—to our students, to broader publics—and if we can make this work sustainable for the faculty who pursue it, we can begin addressing some of the racial disparities of workload within the academy and create new audiences for the humanities.

The future of the university—and of the world—depend on it.


This article was commissioned by Stephanie Ann Frampton and Carolyn Dever. icon

Featured image: Hundreds of students and staff protest budget cuts to humanities departments at Otago University in New Zealand (2016.) Photograph by New Zealand Tertiary Education Union / Flickr.