After my hard-hitting foray into “historians liking libraries,” I think I’m ready for even more tendentious blogposts on subjects such as the cuteness of kittens, the madness of hatters, and the wealth of Croesus.
In all seriousness, though, I do want to mix it up with Chris Beneke a little (but I should preface it by saying that he’s a smart and thoughtful scholar, he’s written a really interesting book, and he’s a fine fellow all around).
I certainly don’t want to diminish the extent of the problems Beneke is addressing here–the bleak humanities job market and the terrible conditions in which adjunct faculty work. I also agree with most of his prescriptions: we should be as forthright as possible in our defense of the value of the humanities, we should pay more attention to some of the underlying problems, we should engage with broader audiences (at least some of the time), and we should think about whether the training of graduate students best fits the world they will face upon receiving an advanced degree.
I do, however, want to push back on a couple of points:
First, his statement that “much of a history professor’s traditional teaching responsibilities can now be easily replicated and widely distributed.” It’s not clear where Beneke is going with this–after all, our scholarship can also be “easily replicated and widely distributed,” and that hasn’t stopped us from writing books and articles (yet). I also don’t think Beneke is seriously suggesting that watching a lecture on iTunes University is equivalent to being in a classroom with a professor and taking his/her course–but if he is, I think he’s selling what we do quite short. In the comments, Beneke recommends (though he doesn’t necessarily endorse) Kevin Carey’s “What Colleges Should Learn from Newspapers’ Decline,” which Jeff has already spiritedly attacked.
Second, I think Beneke needs to slow down a bit before arguing (in point five) that we should both “substitute more rigorous teacher training for grad school research committments” and scale down degree and tenure requirements such that full-length works of history aren’t necessarily demanded. (Does he mean everywhere? And if not, who gets to decide who disarms and who doesn’t?)
There are several things going on here besides “our standards are too high”: the overproduction of Ph.D.s, the disconnect (often unproblematic) between market saleability and scholarly value, and, finally, the good old-fashioned notion that our teaching and research can be vitally connected, and what’s good for one side of that equation is good for the other. I’d also add that some ideas really do need a full-length book to fully explore–and the best way to ensure that a scholar has the discipline and endurance to write a big, book-length idea one day is to make sure that they first do it under the wing of a senior mentor in a university setting. But whatever–this is an obvious argument. I don’t mind debating the pros and cons of specific solutions (and I agree that some tinkering, or even overhaul, needs to take place), I’m just wary of arguments that appear to devalue what a Ph.D. in history ought to mean, and what it can offer.