American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 40

The Transformation of Humanistic Studies
in the Twenty-first Century:
Opportunities and Perils


Locality and Worldliness
by Thomas Bender

Taking the Humanities Off Life Support
by Stanley Chodorow


by Pauline Yu

Copyright © 1997, Pauline Yu

The Course of the Particulars:
Humanities in the University
of the Twenty-first Century1

Pauline Yu
Dean of Humanities,
University of California, Los Angeles

Like the other participants in this public session, I have been at different moments witness, victim, and agent of some of the many transformations that have swept through universities in this last decade of the twentieth century, changes that many programs in the humanities have found rather unsettling. The national context for these developments has been of great concern to us all, but let me begin, for the sake of example, with the local instance I have come to know best.

When I moved to UCLA in January 1994 as Dean of Humanities, I think it is fair to say that the outlook for the division was less than promising. The University of California was about to enter its fourth successive phase of budget cutting, a process that was to reduce by 25 percent its total support from the state. In the College of Letters and Science at UCLA, the humanities seemed an increasingly likely site for massive, targeted reductions. Student credit hours, student-faculty ratios, and numbers of majors had either flattened out or fallen, while those in the social and biological sciences had by contrast begun a steep upward trajectory. Faculty appointments in the twenty-five humanities departments and interdepartmental programs had remained relatively stable in both numbers and profile. By contrast, strategic and aggressive recruiting during the boom years of the late 1980s in the social sciences in particular had dramatically enhanced the national distinction of that division, which—burdened by the crush of students hoping for success in business or law or forced to abandon their aspirations for careers in the health sciences (organic chemistry can do that)—could only eye with increasing impatience the enviably small classes taught by their colleagues in the humanities.

Surely there was "fat" to be trimmed in my division. For example, did we really need to teach almost a hundred different languages, only half of which are spoken in the contemporary world, and all of which are labor intensive? Couldn't writing instruction be delivered in a more cost-effective manner than in classes requiring one teacher for every twenty-five students? (Never mind that the National Council of Teachers of English doesn't think it works with more than fifteen in a class.) Was it really necessary to maintain two dozen discrete units, some so small, it must be admitted, that they were virtually dysfunctional both administratively and interpersonally and thus generated (by my unofficial count) the highest per capita number of grievances against each other in the College? (Little did I know that my experience as the mother of three squabbling children would prove so useful in this new position.) There were rumors that at least 10 percent of humanities' faculty positions would be transferred into the social sciences because of enrollment imbalances, and there was the fact that the writing staff alone had already been cut by 40 percent as a consequence of previous budget reductions. And I was advised to prepare myself for the privilege of implementing the highest percentage cut to be inflicted on any division in the College in the fourth phase of reductions at UCLA.

I knew all this, accepted the position nonetheless, and started work in January 1994. Ten days later the Northridge earthquake struck southern California and rendered Royce Hall, a campus landmark and home to more than a quarter of the division's units, uninhabitable, forcing the seventy evacuated faculty and twenty staff members into a multi-year migratory exile not scheduled to end until sometime in 1998. An extremely attractive early retirement program that spring enticed thirty-one senior faculty to explore other opportunities, and leaving many of those slots unfilled brought us two-thirds of the way towards our savings target. The remainder could come only out of staff savings—budgets which had already been severely depleted. In the end, it became clear that I could implement the additional necessary cuts only by consolidating our twenty-five administrative units into twelve—pooling services while leaving academic affairs separate and intact. This was not, to say the least, a popular decision.

Conditions have improved since those dark and brutally dislocating days. At press time, the University of California is in the fourth year of a four-year compact with the governor that has guaranteed relatively stable funding—at the price, however, of what we have been told to think of as "productivity enhancements" amounting to ten million dollars. Through creative financing and smoke and mirrors we have begun to rebuild our faculty and improve the infrastructural support for both teaching and research. In 1989, for example, the Division of Humanities' investment in computer technology was only half that of the physical sciences'; now it is exactly the same. Websites for both courses and professors, virtual office hours, multimedia classrooms and labs, and digitized teaching materials have become fixtures of our curricular landscape, as well. Nonetheless, to say that the humanities at UCLA have felt beleaguered, besieged, and beaten up over the past few years or so is, perhaps, to belabor the obvious.

The physical and fiscal travails of the division reflect, of course, larger challenges within both higher education and humanistic discourse in general. Rising costs for private institutions have generally not been supported by commensurate increases in the numbers of students willing or able to pay the necessarily escalating tuitions; to my knowledge, for example, applications for fall 1997 dropped off at all of the Ivy League colleges except Columbia. Similarly, we know that a public institution like the University of California can be accurately described as state-assisted, rather than state-supported, given its claim on a mere 4.4 percent of the state budget. UCLA's portion of that allocation represents a scant 23 percent of its annual expenditures. Meanwhile, we have been warned that "Tidal Wave II," fully equal in force to the influx of baby boomers that inundated institutions of higher learning in the decade from 1965 to 1975, will soon descend upon us, bringing a projected half-million new students into the system by the year 2005.

The citizens of the state, however, according to a recent survey from the California Higher Education Policy Center, do not consider this a crisis that would justify such solutions as placing limits on the numbers of students we can admit or raising fees (from what is considered the exorbitant sum of about $4,000 for state residents). Rather, they expect us to make more efficient use of existing resources: maybe we can get a grant somewhere to build the tenth campus we need for the University of California, they suggest helpfully, or faculty can teach more classes, and administrators work more and spend less. One respondent commented, for example, that after retiring from her forty-hour-a-week job, she had enrolled in a program at a community college where "teachers only teach twenty hours a week. To me that is a gravy job." Another noted that "There is a lot of paper shuffling going on in the university, and a lot of memos flying back and forth, and not much getting done. It doesn't make sense to me."2

If the infrastructural complexity of institutions of higher learning doesn't make sense to our prospective clientele (or, at times, to us), still less comprehensible may be the arguments we conduct among ourselves about what it is we are trying to do and whether or not it is of value. Consider the challenges that we all confront, far beyond the familiar ones having to do with saving lives and creating jobs: the profound demographic pressures created by sheer growth of population and enhanced ethnic and cultural diversity of the state; the increasingly complex problem of human interaction with the environment; the issues and opportunities associated with the advance of technology, particularly computer and electronic technology; and the basic problem of trying to figure out how we can all get along. Do our publics grasp the central role played by the humanities in exploring, inculcating, and perfecting the broader understanding of culture—and cultures—that might advance the understanding of these problems and help create solutions for them? Do they recognize that it is we who teach "the ability to express oneself clearly and accurately; the skill of critical evaluation, both of ideas and actions; the courage to make choices based on shared values and priorities; the opportunity to conduct an intensive conversation with the traditions, present and past, that help make us who we are, and above all who we will be; and as a result, the ability to understand and make sense of other people and their cultures"?3 To embrace the wisdom of imparting these skills is not, I think, to pander to some purely instrumental notion of the value of a liberal education. They lie at the heart of the mission of the humanities. But how broadly shared is this recognition? Not only have the humanities been marginalized on public registers of utility, but there is, after all, a long history within humanistic discourse itself affirming the importance of preserving that very disinterestedness, that wish to insulate humanistic study from the conditions of the marketplace altogether.

Who among us needs to be reminded, furthermore, that the very critical faculties humanists seek to develop have led them first of all to question the terms they employ and the subjects they study? Assaults on the core curriculum, on the constructedness of the literary canon, and on the centrality and stability of an integrated, centered, and autonomous self have not been waged, after all, from the outside. Rather, debates over particular inclusions or exclusions from reading lists—that, in David Damrosch's words, "amount to little more than the replacement of a few deck chairs as general education continues slowly, majestically, to sink out of sight"4 and expose thereby the possible hollowness of the core— only serve to make those who might otherwise like to preserve it truly uncomfortable, if not downright suspicious. Yes, as a recent article in The Los Angeles Times revealed, many English departments—though not UCLA's—have eliminated Chaucer and Milton from their reading lists and it has even become thinkable not to be required to read Shakespeare, too.5 I think that these questions should always be thinkable, and that the impulse to rethink is precisely what makes contemporary humanistic discourse so powerful.

One of my former colleagues argued a few years ago that we don't need to create challenges to the traditional European canon by including noncanonical material on reading lists since—in the right hands—the classics manage to deconstruct themselves quite nicely on their own. I find certain implications of this position troubling, for as a sometime scholar of classical Chinese poetry in a Western institutional context I have collected more than my share of anecdotes illustrating the reach of Eurocentrism. A well-known American interpreter of Western critical theory, for example, was asked to review for publication a recent comparative work on poetry written by one of my colleagues. This book happens to span numerous cultural and temporal boundaries, including those of China. While the reviewer did submit a positive recommendation to the press, when he happened shortly thereafter to meet the author of the volume, an eminent scholar of Chinese literature, he confided, with absolutely unabashed candor over dinner, that he had enjoyed the book very much but had of course "skipped all the Chinese stuff." And on another occasion, shortly after I moved to California from New York a few years ago, one of my new colleagues, another influential theorist and native of France, remarked to me at a party that I must miss New York very much. Now, I did happen to harbor many regrets about the move, but being a bit curious as to what lay behind his comment, I responded by asking him why he should think that that might be the case. He replied, "Because you're now so much farther away from China."

Needless to say, this was not the answer I expected. I'll refrain from unpacking the various presumptions implicated in that radically disoriented response—postmodern geography at its best. Someone who measures the distance between California and China by way of Western Europe is all too likely, I fear, to do the same discursively, as well. But while distances, like differences, may have shrunk, we must not allow them to disappear altogether, for the consequences of failing to recognize their existence, and affirm their value, are simply too dire.

We would do well to remind ourselves that humanistic disciplines insist on this recognition, for the inherently critical, analytical, and self-reflective faculties they cultivate resist by their very nature the impulse to arrive at universalizing generalizations shared by both the social and natural sciences. If we can crudely characterize the latter as seeking to demonstrate the applicability of homologous laws of nature or sweeping theoretical abstractions (rational choice modeling, for example, or the delineation of patterns of modernization or democratization in what can at best be hoped for as a "context-sensitive" manner), then we can equally crudely recognize in the humanities a predilection to follow the course of the particular. Before I arrived at UCLA, a faculty-staff workgroup had been charged with the task of suggesting how the impending budget cuts might be implemented at the administrative level. Various restructuring scenarios had been bruited about, most of which involved such drastic measures as actually merging departments, with especially intense scrutiny directed at the foreign language programs. The workgroup valiantly staked out a position against such consolidations, arguing that the distinctive business of the Division of Humanities—the study of literatures written in a bewildering multiplicity of languages—required an extensive apprenticeship in both the grammar of the language in question and its historical evolution within a specific cultural context, as well as a recognition of the concrete social, historical, and individual circumstances within which this apprenticeship was being conducted. Rather than pursuing universal and timeless laws that govern the production and features of literary texts, the workgroup's report claimed, humanists "are concerned as scholars with the forms and the occurrences of the differences, the concrete peculiarities upon which meaning hinges. . . . Humanities celebrates the particular, the individual, the historical in opposition to the timeless and universal." And the institutional consequence, according to this report? "Given this fundamental orientation, it is not surprising that humanistic study has produced a proliferation of small units, each concerned with some degree of peculiarity. Any other form of academic organization would betray the objects and aims of our inquiries."6

Whatever its transparent self-interestedness, this argument harbors at least one noteworthy point. Just as the workgroup was struggling both against the local hegemony of the Department of English—that claimed half the majors and probably two-thirds of the student credit hours in the division—as well as against the rising tide of social science enrollments, so we will need to call on the critical and self-reflective skills of humanistic disciplines in general to ground the homogenization of theory and the mantras of globalization. If, as it appears, the university of the twenty-first century has declared itself an international institution, it ought to start by knowing something about the world. The forces driving this movement may not be the same as those that motivated the development of area studies in the fifties and sixties, whose accomplishments we've probably been too quick to discredit. But the seductions of universalism (more economic now, perhaps, than military and political) are no less powerful than they were decades ago.

There is no better time than now to cease bewailing the plight of the beleaguered and undervalued humanities and to recognize instead the essential role a humanist's insistence on local knowledge plays in expanding the vision of the monoptic globalizing lens. Let's insist that theory be open to being shaped by specific example, and that cultural studies recognize the distinctive features of cultures. As we move to internationalize our curricula (whether because of market forces or for a more lofty intellectual agenda), let us not forget to contextualize the questions we ask. Whose theory frames our analysis? In what ways does it risk eliding the nuances of the local? How do the questions we pose of other cultures tally with those they ask of themselves, and of us? To value the local and peculiar is not, I should stress, to become mired on the reefs of a cultural exceptionalism or essentialism that would deny all comparability whatsoever. As a comparatist who sought to bring theoretical issues to bear on the study of classical Chinese literature, I've enjoyed my share of vilification as a "metaphysician manqué" for such intellectual impertinence. I'd prefer to think of comparative and theoretical inquiry as an example of "higher education as an open-ended conversation among those who have learned how to think differently about matters of general concern."7

Systematic, deep, contextual knowledge cannot but highlight those differences. And so, on a different level, must a recognition of the heterogeneity of the students we now teach, and especially (but not exclusively) on the west coast. I remember that when I began teaching Confucius in introductory courses on the Asian humanities twenty years ago in a large Midwestern university, I found it useful to focus students' attention initially on the ways in which a text like The Analects did or didn't pose questions like those that "we in the West" might have come to expect from reading the dialogues of Plato. However, when I walked into my first class in California in 1989 and looked at the students sitting there, I knew I'd have to change that line. And not just because they had never read Plato. (Let us hope, incidentally, that the diversity of the UC student body is something we manage to preserve.)

I think we all know well that the nineteenth-century methods of studying other parts of the world that shaped American institutions of higher education did not always aim to learn "how to think differently about matters of general concern" but more typically sought, through generalized paradigms, to think the same way about matters of great difference. What they also shared—and I am thinking here of a discipline like classics as much as I am of "oriental" studies—was a resolute, if fundamentally undisciplined, interdisciplinarity. The remarkable ease with which the great sinologists could move from relic to painting to chronicle to text—and of any epoch whatsoever—was matched only by the alacrity with which they often disregarded the historical specificity of each of those documents. And they worked alone, confirming the stereotype of the humanist as solitary, independent scholar.

As two recent critiques of the contemporary university have argued, this too may change in the twenty-first century. In his recent book We Scholars, David Damrosch calls for an emergence from the individualist isolation of disciplinary enclaves that have become entrenched since the beginning of this century into a culture of cooperation, a community of small-scale research groups and team-taught courses to overcome the limits of specialization.8 We can already see evidence of this movement on one campus after the other in the proliferation of centers for interdisciplinary collaboration in the humanities, as well as in the burgeoning of programs—both local and national—that support shifting interest clusters of faculty and graduate students. It is the appeal and vitality of such ventures that provide in my view the most salient counterargument to my divisional workgroup's noble effort to defend the integrity of small departmental structures: shouldn't they invest their identities in what they do (which at its best ignores the limits of boundaries) rather than in where they are—academic units whose nomenclature, structures, and categories often reflect the arbitrariness of historical accident or divisions of convenience?

Damrosch's vision of a kind of communal therapy reflects a certain nostalgia for a time when a scholar—someone like Hegel is a good example—could have read everything, and a resigned acceptance of the impossibility of being a generalist in the modern age. In Bill Readings' more acerbic version, articulated in his book, The University in Ruins, "the existing disciplinary model of the humanities is on the road to extinction," stripped of its raison d'être as promoter and preserver of the national culture of the nation-state and now "cracking under the pressure of market imperatives"9 that threaten to turn the university into a transnational corporation governed by the discourse of "excellence." Like Damrosch, Readings proposes the adoption of "a certain rhythm of disciplinary attachment and detachment": intentionally impermanent collaborations that resist institutional entrenchment and inertia. And rather than involving an exchange of "the rigid and outmoded disciplines for a simply amorphous disciplinary space," this loosening of structures ought to provide an opportunity to foreground disciplinarity itself "as a permanent question. The short-term projects [he suggests] are designed to keep open the question of what it means to group knowledges in certain ways, and what it has meant that they have been so grouped in the past."10

Readings provides us with yet another perspective on the transformations we are likely to see in the next decade and reminds us again of the crucial way in which humanistic inquiry can shape them. Without a profound understanding of the particulars of context and culture, we can hardly hope to produce a responsibly internationalized curriculum. Without a vigilantly self-reflective stance, we may not remember to revisit the notion of responsibility. Without a persistent willingness to rethink traditional categories, we may only delude ourselves about what it means to cross disciplines. And without a conviction to adjust modes of analysis to newly perceived realities, to question what seems obvious or without question, and to reaffirm what seems of enduring value, we risk forgetting wherein lies the essence of the humanities. We cannot afford to take the risk of losing the insights into ourselves, our pasts, and our futures that they teach us. And I don't think we will.


1 Readers will no doubt hear the faint echo, in my title, of Wallace Stevens' well-known poem, "The Course of a Particular." [Back to text.]

2 John Immerwhar, "Enduring Values, Changing Concerns: What Californians Expect from Their Higher Education System" (Public Agenda for The California Higher Education Policy Center, March 1997) 20. [Back to text.]

3 Gary Lease, "A `Manifesto' for the Humanities" (University of California President's Advisory Committee on Research in the Humanities, September 1996). [Back to text.]

4 David Damrosch, We Scholars: Changing the Culture of the University. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995) 109. [Back to text.]

5 Henry Chu, "Reports of the Bard's Demise Are Premature," The Los Angeles Times 25 March 1997. [Back to text.]

6 Report of the Workgroup on Administrative Restructuring (University of California, Los Angeles, December 1993) 3. [Back to text.]

7 James Miller, , "The Academy Writes Back: Why We Can't Close the Book on Allan Bloom," Linguafranca March 1997: 62. [Back to text.]

8 Damrosch, We Scholars, esp. 187-214. [Back to text.]

9 Bill Readings, The University in Ruins. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996) 176-177. [Back to text.]

10 Readings, 176-177. [Back to text.]

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