The University Record, November 1, 1999

Humanities Ph.D.s need to give thought to careers outside academe, foundation chief says

By Jane R. Elgass

The job crisis in the humanities—too many Ph.D.-holders for two few jobs—has lasted 30 years and is no longer a crisis, but rather a condition, asserted Robert Weisbuch Oct. 25 in discussing “Do We Matter? Doctoral Education and Social Consequence.”

Encouraging humanists to “move into the world,” Weisbuch said that the humanities, and the liberal arts more generally, “are suffering from a culture of tears and our suffering is unnecessary.”

“We must require of ourselves a new adventure into the world of the university and into the world of the world,” said Weisbuch, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and former interim dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies.

Rather than continue to complain about the lack of academic positions, teachers and mentors must look to preparing their students for careers that might not be lodged in academe.

Curriculum changes probably are not the answer, Weisbuch noted, but thinking more broadly about job possibilities outside the world of academe is critical on the part of both students and faculty.

The culture of the humanities, Weisbuch said, “seems to me to have become defeatist, a theater of failure in which opponents fight furiously amongst themselves over paradigms that matter less and less to anyone else.”

“An engineer takes a problem and fixes it, while a humanist takes a problem and celebrates its complexity. [That’s] fine until we are the problem and it’s been continuing for 30 years,” said Weisbuch, who also was professor of English and chair while at the U-M.

Weisbuch said he used to think that doctoral education served to produce the next generation of university faculty, but now views the issue more broadly. “Doctoral education exists to create the next generation of intellectuals capable of consequential action in the world, including the next generation of teacher-scholars. “The academy loses nothing and gains much by admitting that it does not own the liberal arts but practices, even centers, disciplinary versions of interests and activities that belong to the world at large,” Weisbuch said. “This is cause for celebration and a logic for opportunity. The question becomes whether we are willing to give up a presumptuous notion of ownership to win the world.”

Weisbuch assailed the increasing practice of some faculty in removing themselves from teaching younger students and from such activities as advising. At many German universities, he noted, it is common practice for the senior faculty member to teach the introductory course.

“So long as the professors are loath to teach the freshmen and sophomores, or to involve themselves in issues of student life or even academic advising, guess what? A growing bureaucracy of non-faculty jobs and fewer jobs for Ph.D.s. [results]. But that is the least of it,” he said. “By such retreats, the faculty loses its capacity to shape the university.”

Scholarship is essential to the human experience and its influence must be maximized, Weisbuch said. “We have defined too many college problems away from intellectual consideration, and our scholarly capacities of reason, which are so richly transferable, can be activated to solve them.”

Holders of Ph.D.s in the humanities are good communicators, write well, are able to interpret complex information and are trained in advanced research techniques, Weisbuch noted, all skills needed in the world beyond academe. “At an early stage in life, they have brought a major project to term—they are finishers.”

To illustrate the successful transfer of these skill sets outside the world of academe, Weisbuch cited the foundation’s “Humanities at Work” initiative, founded on the notion that the humanities disciplines “provide a storehouse of human wisdom, and more importantly, forms of knowing won from the total experience of humankind.”

“Humanities at Work” provides positions for postdocs, with 20 already reserved in such varied positions as director of research at an educational investment firm, National Park Service historian, production manager at a publishing house, vice president for professional development at an international consulting firm, vice president for product development at a software startup and associate editor at a market research firm.

Weisbuch also wants to encourage more collaborative efforts on the part of universities with the K–12 system.

The shortage of teachers and surplus of Ph.D.s, as well as the national movement to set standards for both teachers and what is to be learned, offer opportunities for higher education to truly be involved in these areas, particularly now with the “attention of the citizenry at a peak.”

“If teaching in the public school cannot become a bit more like teaching in the university, if teaching in the public school cannot become more of a career capable of intellectual and professional development and less of a grind-em-up job, nothing good will happen. Here as nowhere else, the intellectual needs first to learn and then the collaborate.

“Every university intellectual I know who has gone outside has gotten more than given, has learned more than taught,” he said. “A chosen involvement with the world lets the fresh air in, lets us guide influences from the wide world that will exist willy-nilly otherwise.”

Faculty honored for mentoring, GSIs for teaching

Woodrow Wilson Foundation President Robert Weisbuch’s presentation last week was part of the ceremony honoring recipients of the 1999 D’Arms Faculty and Graduate Student Instructor Awards for Distinguished Graduate Mentoring in the Humanities. It also was the second in the Graduate School’s fall lecture series on “The Future of the Research University.”

The awards honor John H. D’Arms, former vice provost for academic affairs and Graduate School dean, celebrating the humanities and the intellectual and pedagogical values D’Arms championed. D’Arms is on leave to serve as president of the American Council of Learned Societies.

Faculty award recipients are:

Kathleen Canning, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and associate professor of history and of women’s studies.

Marlon Ross, professor of English and faculty associate, Center for Afroamerican and African Studies.

Sonya Rose, professor of history, of sociology and of women’s studies.

Outstanding graduate student instructors also were recognized at the program:

Theresa Braunschneider (women’s studies and English), Aaron Crumm (materials science and engineering), Kristen Dombkowski (history), Khristina Haddad (women’s studies and political science), Kimberly Hall (natural resources and environment), Suzanne “Celery” Kovinsky (philosophy), Anna Kuxhausen (history), Stephanie Lindemann (linguistics), Marc Melitz (economics), Andrew Mertha (political science), Joe Moreau (American culture), Glenn Palmgren (natural resources and environment), Karen Parker (psychology), Scott Parsell (mathematics), Marc Schlossberg (urban, technological and environmental planning), Sheila Schueller (biology), Jennifer Sinor (English and education), Michael Sowder (English), Marek Steedman (political science) and James Zimmerman (chemistry).