Humanities’ scholarly infrastructure is vanishing (opinion)

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I was dismayed to read Steven Mintz’s Inside Higher Ed July 18 blog post, in which he argued that “[a] growing number of humanities scholars are drifting away from what were once considered professional obligations.” Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, suggests that everything from book reviewing, to peer review for journal articles, to recommendation letters, to reviewing candidates for promotion and tenure is going undone because, supposedly, humanities faculty have given in to a culture of individualism and self-advancement in the face of low pay, poor reward structures, and siloed and fragmented disciplines.

While the problems of low pay and poor reward structure are certainly true, and pervasive, the idea that humanities scholars have turned into Bartlebys, that they have simply become indifferent to the broader field or do not care to engage in volunteer work that sustains the profession, is nonsense. The current struggle to fulfill obligations to the profession is not about lack of interest or will. It is about precarity, desperation, and exhaustion. Even The New York Times took the time to note the disaster unfolding in the humanities job market, and that was well before the worst effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were being felt.

As reported by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), 62 percent of all current faculty are contingent, meaning they are either adjuncts or full-time lecturers without any prospect of tenure or advancement. Adjunct faculty members generally make between $3,000 and $5,500 per class, meaning that if they teach a 4/4 load, they are making $12,000 to $22,000 per semester, or $24,000 to $44,000 per year. Given that the median rent in the U. S. is now more than $2,000 a month, this means that precarious faculty may spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing alone.

The American Federation of Teachers, which conducts the ongoing 2022 Contingent Faculty Survey, paints an even bleaker picture, stating that “75 percent of faculty are not eligible for tenure, and 47 percent hold part-time positions.” Previous AFT surveys of contingent faculty members have found that “[o]ne-quarter of respondents earn less than $25,000 annually” and “[f]ewer than half of survey respondents have access to employer-provided health insurance, and nearly 20 percent rely on Medicaid.”

Community college faculty fare especially poorly, with 79 percent holding full- or part-time contingent appointments (as reported by AAUP and​ Inside Higher Ed).

Furthermore, the humanities have one of the worst gender pay gaps in terms of salary. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences reported in 2019 that there is a 27 percent pay gap between men and women with doctorate degrees in the humanities, the second-largest gap of any field studied other than life sciences. Humanities Ph.Ds. also were found to have the lowest median earnings of any field.

In addition, the AAUP reported that real faculty wages overall fell by 5 percent in 2021-22 after adjusting for inflation, the largest one-year decrease on record.

All this means that the vast majority of humanities professors — those who are contingent and/or teaching at baccalaureate institutions or community colleges — have limited time for research. Teaching a 4/4 or a 5/5 in order to make ends meet, or because an institution requires that load for all faculty, is a far cry from teaching a 2/2 or a 3/3 at a research-intensive university or a selective liberal arts college. The equation becomes even more complicated when the number of different courses is taken into account; the amount of work to assemble and teach four sections of the same course is considerably less than the amount of work required to teach four different courses. And this is to say nothing of teaching a 5/5 or a 6/6 because of contract requirements or being short-staffed. The Washington Post reported on the increasing frequency of this problem, especially at colleges that serve low-income students, in an article last year.

In addition to all of the above, the COVID-19 pandemic created an incredible amount of extra work, demanding more teaching online, often for faculty who had never taught online before and had to learn entirely new platforms and pedagogical techniques. Students have needed more support as they struggled through classes during the pandemic — everything from additional help in office hours, to more scaffolded assignments, to emotional support and referrals to counseling, or referrals to campus resources for help with textbook and technology costs. The efforts and time being put into helping students through this national trauma have been nothing short of heroic, but have left most of us with little time or bandwidth for service to the profession.

The devastation wrought on parents who are scholars, especially women, during the pandemic has also been well-documented; the lack of support and childcare structures has wreaked havoc on scholarly productivity. Studies either show lower productivity by women scholars overall, particularly for early career scholars, or significant decreases in particular fields. Either way, worries over tenure and promotion — when so many have published less or been unable to publish — have surely exacerbated the deficit in scholars who are willing to perform review work or head committees. Service to the profession is often not counted or only considered incidental in reviews for promotion and tenure, and for those who have published less as a result of the pandemic, their focus is naturally going to be on making up lost ground if possible. Those in adjunct or lecturer positions usually have no hope of tenure or promotion at all. Why, then, would faculty spend their precious free time (after teaching four or five classes a term) doing service that neither gets them paid nor offers them any hope of advancement?

Finally, the extensive elimination of arts and humanities programs and positions during the pandemic has been thoroughly reported on — from Marquette University to Illinois Wesleyan University to Ithaca College — and the closure of both two-year and four-year institutions has been covered extensively. These twin trends have left many professors unemployed or scrambling for positions, exacerbating the precarity crisis in the humanities.

The ability to produce quality scholarly work, and to perform the services that produce quality scholarly work from others, requires both time and economic security. It requires salaries that meet the cost of living. It requires reasonable teaching loads. It requires having enough faculty to fulfill all of the governance needs at a university, without unduly burdening anyone, but especially women, parents, and early career scholars. It requires the ability to think beyond the next day or the next pay period.

Condemning humanities scholars for not investing in a profession and a workplace that have clearly not invested in them is misguided at best, and outright cruel at worst. For most of us, it is abundantly clear that we’ll be lucky if we have a profession left at all.

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