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Grafton’s grim outlook for the humanities

Anthony Grafton, professor of European history at Princeton, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education (10 July 2009), pg. B26:

Twenty years on, the humanities workplace will look and be worse.  In recent decades, competition for stars in the top tiers of research universities – a competition that became especially fierce early in the current decade – has resulted in high salaries and low workloads for a fortunate few.  Meanwhile, conditions for most humanists have deteriorated.  Even in prosperous times, many administrations have treated the faculty chiefly as a cost center.  They have minimized the expense of instruction by replacing long-term and permanent appointments with graduate assistantships and short-term jobs.  A majority of faculty members now work outside the tenure system.

Unless the world economy recovers with startling speed, for the next several years university administrators, even at top universities, will be even more sensitive that than have been to financial pressures – far more than to demands for prestige or departmental pleas that they heap riches on a Deep Thinker because some other university proposes to do so.

Even high fliers will see salaries frozen and perks withdrawn.  More important, few new tenured and tenure-track appointments will be on offer.  When funds become available again, postdoctoral fellowships and other terminal positions will multiply more rapidly than traditional jobs, since awarding them does not require administrations to commit funds for the long term.  Even at the top of the system, the workplace will be less stable, less prosperous, and less humane.  For most humanists, insecurity will become the new norm.

Innovation will continue to take place, and scholars with new skill sets will still enter the humanistic academy.  The natural locus for these changes may be interdisciplinary centers, most of them responsible for raising their own support from outside grants.  This model has begun to spread from the natural sciences into the humanities – for example, in the shape of digital-humanities centers.  Flexible incubators of this kind will bring new forms of scholarship and teaching into being.  At their best, these enterprises will bring humanists and scientists together, replacing some of the loneliness and freedom of traditional humanistic scholarship with collaborative modes of work….

These changes, however, will exact costs of their own, diverting investment from traditional scholarly institutions, such as established disciplines, research libraries, and university presses.  The new centers are likely to provide more contingent than permanent positions.  Most of their inhabitants will have to be “entrepreneurial” (and scramble for money) if they hope for continued employment….  Still, such centers are likely to be the main bright spots in a darkening sky.


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