American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 10


Peter Conn
Thomas Crow
Barbara Jeanne Fields
David Hollinger
Sabine MacCormack
Richard Rorty
Catharine R. Stimpson

Humanities Graduate Education and the Undergraduate Curriculum:
Concert or Conflict

Ernest S. Frerichs
Brown University

The scholars emerging from humanities graduate education are often viewed by colleges and universities as misfits in undergraduate education. “Overspecialization” is charged, and the new humanities instructor is seen as helpless before the demands of generalization in the introductory course and at ease only in the graduate seminar. Of equal concern, however, are a series of issues which will determine the quality of those entering humanities scholarship and the departmental labels they will wear. The content of the humanities undergraduate curriculum will also bear the scars of several academic battles, the initial phases of which are just beginning. My concern is to focus our attention on these other issues.

Although graduate educators have considerable concern for the financial support of humanities graduate students, many of these educators anticipate a return to relative normalcy in the 1990s. The prospect of a limited employment market, a spectre which haunted the graduate years of doctoral students in the last decade, seems to recede with the assurances of appointments available through the large-scale retirement of the humanities professoriate. Reports of increases in graduate applicants (my own institution is registering a 30 percent increase in graduate applicants this year) and a neutral to positive view of the quality of applicants (e.g., the assessment of the quality of candidates in the pool for the Mellon Pre-Doctoral Fellowships and the Javits Fellowship Program) both provide some confirmation that students are again viewing the prospects of a scholarly career favorably. There is a certain caution (to be investigated by further studies) about the apocalyptic views of the last decade: 1) there would be a large void in the pool of potential applicants in the 1990s, and 2) the applicants for senior professoriates in the late 1990s would come from a mediocre stock of academics who had replaced the “best and brightest” in the normal progression of scholarly generations.

Despite the above, however, we need serious studies assuring us, or denying, that the pool of new research doctorates will be adequate for the needs of the 1990s and beyond. If graduate education is the reproductive system of scholarship, the relative fertility of graduate schools has been fairly uniform, despite the severe difficulties of the past decade. From a high of 34,000 research doctorates in 1973–74, our productivity declined to a low of some 30,000 and increased to 32,278 in 1987. The ability of graduate schools of arts and sciences to regulate Ph.D. production in short-range terms has been less successful than the nation’s regulation of hog production.

Recent studies such as that of Syverson and Forster from the National Research Council on New Ph.D.s and the Academic Labor Market (1984) argue that there is no shortage of Ph.D.’s to fill academic jobs. The data of that study suggested that there was a 5% to 7% demand for replacement. Based upon such a demand rate, the current faculty would be renewed in 15 to 20 years, a rate sufficient to meet future demands of the academic labor market without an increase in Ph.D. production. A contrary view suggests that research doctorate production will not be adequate for the needs of the mid-1990s. If the contrary view determines graduate school policies, there will be large ramifications with respect to such questions as the competitive attractiveness of a scholarly career and the financial support of humanities graduate students. The image of the unemployed or partially employed scholar from the late 1970s and early 1980s (the “gypsy scholar”) is still vivid in the views of the scholarly life projected by academics to their students. If such a view of the scholarly life is coupled with the image of the humanities scholar spending a lifetime repaying educational debt, we can understand the enormity of the effort needed to alter those images. The absence of an accepted solution to the financial support of humanities graduate students is not encouraging for a rapid change in students’ understanding of the situation.

It is important to note that the pool for academic hires is not only new research doctorates, but also doctoral persons initially employed outside of academic institutions. Additionally, it includes doctoral recipients inside the university, but serving either as post-doctorals or on some form of soft money funding. Although some of these potential hires will have discarded the prospects of a scholarly career within academic employment, or will be eliminated from searches on other grounds, some portion of these persons will enter the pools of future searches for faculty appointments. An attempt was made to measure the severity of loss which direct academic employment in the field of the doctorate experienced in the National Research Council publication, Departing the Ivy Halls: Changing Employment Situations for Recent Ph.D.s (1983).

Alongside the important questions of quantity and financial support is the perennial question of quality. Here we can commend the actions of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund a program for the pre-doctoral humanities to attract the “best and brightest” and to insure that 125 of the best students each year would have an adequate program of financial support for a significant part of their graduate careers. The Mellon program is not primarily concerned with a lack of Ph.D.’s; it is concerned to insure that the best minds will be attracted to the scholarly profession with obvious consequences for scholarship and the undergraduate curriculum. Before the 1989 Mellon grants to students, some 706 awards had been made and 605 Mellon Fellows were pursuing graduate education in 40 North American graduate schools.

A further program of support for doctoral students has been the neglected Jacob J. Javits Fellowships, operative under Title IX of the Higher Education Act of 1965. Initially mandated by Congress in 1980, the Javits program intends to support annually 450 graduate students of outstanding ability in the social sciences, humanities, and the arts. The Javits program, however, was not operative till 1984. In the operational years of 1984 to 1987, 509 awards have been made at a cost of $9.7 million. A further $6.7 million was mandated by Congress for the current year.

If these are the certainties and the uncertainties of both supply and support, what additional concerns should one have?

1) There are the uncertainties about the behavior of professors who will face no retirement cap after 1992–93. Presuming good health and reasonable effectiveness, what will be the effect if the economy heats up and inflation rates rise, frightening the retiring professor into continued service?

2) It is also clear that there will be little, if any, expansion of the professoriate. The administrative lesson learned from recent years is to reduce faculties if possible and, if necessary, to replace senior professors with junior professors. The latter has important implications for the nature of graduate education. If the standard response of the departmental faculty is to clone retiring distinguished professor x, it will be a bitter pill to secure at best a bright new Ph.D. In the event of such alternatives, it will be a time when endowed professoriates will be an important protection for the continuation of senior status and the preservation of certain fields of scholarship. Endowment will be a necessary weapon to preserve those fields of scholarship which cannot survive or prosper on the basis of student enrollment.

The next decade will be an important moment for administrations to assess the relative importance of various humanities graduate programs. Those assessments will include not only traditional commitments, but also the changing winds of recognition reflected in reputational studies such as the Jones-Lindzey-Coggeshall study of the early 1980s. Decisions will be required to determine whether certain newer fields (e.g., comparative literature, religious studies) will be adequately staffed for graduate studies and what the graduate education future will be for fields less attractive to graduate students (e.g., German studies). Enrollment concerns, especially in those public institutions in which graduate education has depended heavily on teaching assistantships as the standard form of graduate student support, will be a further factor in the evaluations of growth and decline in the professoriate and in specific programs of graduate education.

3) Beyond the question of replacing senior professors lies the question of reallocation of faculty resources in a steady-state faculty.

Senior administrators have not failed to note that this is their first serious opportunity in more than a quarter of a century to restructure their faculties. This restructuring is a university-wide question with ramifications for every field. But even if we confine our attention to the humanities, the questions for administrations will be to determine what should grow, what should decline, and what should plateau. What “new combinations,” to use the term of another Mellon program, should become a part of the undergraduate humanities program in the 21st century? Which fields will have first-priority access to the resources of the university, a priority often reflected in departmental status, and which fields will continue in the form of committees, programs, and centers? This latter question is not directed to the issue of the overspecialized Ph.D., but rather to the question of what will be there at all.

In 1980–81, a new reputational study was conducted by Lyle Jones and Gardner Lindzey, updating by a decade the Roose-Andersen study of the early 1970s and the early study in 1966 of the late Allan Cartter. When the initial instruments of survey arrived in graduate deans’ offices, it was clear that the field of biology and its nomenclature had changed so dramatically in a decade that the surveyors had to create a new survey instrument for that field. By the criteria used in the Jones-Lindzey study it was clear that the field of geography would not be included (and it was included only after the geographers agreed to pay for the survey costs of including the field). Growing fields in terms of doctoral production such as comparative literature and religious studies that met the criteria of the Jones-Lindzey study for inclusion were excluded because their absence from previous studies meant that no statistical comparisons were possible.

4) Graduate education is a very conservative segment of university education. There is a built-in resistance to radical experimentation, and the autonomy of departments is the single most important influence on educational policy in graduate education.

When “new combinations” arrive on the academic scene, there is a certain imposition of the seniority rule by the existing departments. Who got here first is often very determinative of the degree to which newer fields of study (e.g., black studies, women’s studies, Judaic studies, archaeology) will be given a seat in the academic circle. Given the limited resources for the support of graduate students, a fresh combination seeking support for graduate students is somewhat like the person who approaches a theatre to learn that all the tickets have been sold and the doors are closed. Indeed, there is no room in any performance for the newcomer. Especially when the newcomer is from the humanities and the assurance of grants and contracts from external agencies is slight, the newcomer feels that an academic cold shoulder is being extended. The combination of limited resources and traditional commitments lead to strong affirmations of the status quo and considerable opposition to change.

5) All this suggests that there will be little encouragement from traditional departments to encourage the growth of  “fresh combinations,” new departments—especially if the price of those creations is a redistribution of resources from previously established units in terms of faculty, graduate students, or fellowships. Barbara Herrnstein-Smith spoke in this conference of  “disciplinary self-transformations,” a highly desirable change, though I doubt that administrations, existing departments, or graduate schools will encourage the forms of self-transformation which lead to fission and the creation of new departments.

6) The problem will become worse in the graduate schools with the lengthening of the time needed to complete doctorates. According to the most recent National Research Council report (1987), the time spent in completing a humanities doctorate has gone from 5.5 years in 1967 to 7.1 years in 1977 to 8.4 years in 1987. For all fields in 1987 the length was 6.9 years. This is a further strain on the financial resources of graduate schools and a further deterrent to encouraging new doctoral programs. New resources or the redistribution of existing resources are the obvious alternatives.

Stanley N. Katz’s statement to the members of this panel presupposed that “. . . today’s graduate students tend to be ill-equipped for and frequently disinterested in the task of general education.” If the typical teaching experience of a doctoral candidate is a section of 15 students in History 1 or English Composition 1, and that experience is repeated for two or three years of the graduate student’s enrollment, it is easier to understand the results in Stan Katz’s statement. Departments need to become more adventuresome in enabling the advanced graduate student to teach a course independently which is intended for freshmen and sophomores. The opportunity to do this with supervision from a master teacher can do much to dissipate the notion that graduate students are fit for teaching only graduate seminars.

In conclusion I wish to suggest that significant change in the areas of this panel’s title [Graduate Education in the Humanities and the Undergraduate Curriculum] is less likely in the 1990s. Departments will be struggling (especially those not in favor with the enrollment choices of students) to maintain their strengths in size and in the relative seniority of their faculties. These departments will be resistant to any significant changes in the repertoire, including the introduction of “fresh combinations,” which threaten their continuation in at least the strength they have achieved. The assaults on the humanities will come from senior administrators creating or changing staffing plans which control more effectively the expression of particular department faculties. Here lie the battlefields of humanities departments in the 1990s, rather than in major reformations of graduate education in those fields.