Tuesday, May 7, 2019
Brave New STEM University; Or, the Myth of Student Demand
by Eva Cherniavsky, Andrew R. Hilen Professor of American Literature and Culture, University of Washington at Seattle
Earlier this year, the Seattle Times ran an excellent piece on the decline of the humanities at the University of Washington (UW) and nationwide. Katherine Long, a veteran education reporter, got crucial elements of this topic absolutely right. Her piece began, “You won’t find a single expert on the history of the American Revolution or the Civil War at the University of Washington anymore.” She goes on to make an unusual connection: cutting the humanities hurts student learning and the university’s budget.
To its credit, Long’s article carefully observes both the intellectual and economic consequences of shrinking humanities departments. She notes that, historically, the humanities have effectively taught large numbers of students at relatively low cost, generating credit hours and revenue that was used to subsidize teaching and research in the high-cost STEM fields. (There, as we know, faculty routinely require not only higher salaries, but laboratories, professional staff to run them, and students to work in them. Thus a single STEM faculty hire can easily run into the millions.) Shrinking humanities enrollments (indeed, more broadly, the shrinkage in what is now openly referred to at UW as the “non-STEM” fields) thus seriously exacerbates the budgetary crisis produced by the decades-long withdrawal of public funding.
On the other hand, Long frames the humanities’ intellectual contributions in highly conventional terms: “Academics worry that the nation would be impoverished—both culturally and intellectually—if only an elite few understand the arc of American history, know how to find meaning in poetry, or can discuss the ideas of the great philosophers.” This kind of formulation narrowly aligns the humanities with cultural tradition, and thereby, no doubt unwittingly, reproduces precisely the argument for its irrelevance as a relatively arcane body of knowledge that should perhaps be archived but that does not require ongoing forms of study and engagement.
Instead, we might readily substitute a more robust and informed articulation of the value of culture-focused fields. We could talk, for example, about the importance of fields that think power, identity, and rhetoric at a moment of simmering civil war, or we might emphasize that an understanding of modernity and the historical emergence of modern democratic forms is vital at a moment where democratic governance appears in crisis. The absence of this deeper understanding of humanities knowledge has contributed to the humanities apparent decline.
The day of its publication, Long’s article circulated on the UW-AAUP list server. The discussion that ensued moved between posts that asserted the regrettable inevitability of humanities decline, given plummeting student demand, and others that sought to make the case for the non-STEM fields, though largely based on asserting the value of non-STEM knowledge to technological and scientific endeavors (e.g. how the insights of anthropology are important to the development of artificial intelligence).
It’s worth noting that this was a relatively short-lived, low-energy discussion, especially when compared, for example, to the bounty of thoughtful posts on another recent topic, ownership of on-line course content. But there is a relatively straightforward institutional/legal fix to the latter problem (demand faculty ownership of course content), which, moreover, also affects faculty in high-value STEM fields. The fate of the non-STEM fields, by contrast, appears already given – a ‘fact’ to be explicated, rather than a policy to be contested.
The debate reproduced one of the major shortcomings of the Seattle Times article: discussing “student demand” as a cause, rather than effect. It assumed, in other words, that students’ choice of majors is based on their autonomous determination of their best interest, and thus sits outside the purview of what the institution directs and regulates. This conviction resurfaced a few weeks later in another UW-AAUP list server thread, this time in response to a faculty member reporting that several of her non-STEM students were asking for references so they could transfer to other universities, an aspiration which (she noted) they all attributed to the oppressively STEM-focused culture of UW. The discussion which followed this post consisted largely of testimonials; faculty cited conversations with students to suggest how deeply they appreciated both the humanities curriculum and a humanities pedagogy historically centered on smaller, intensive, discussion-focused classes. Someone needs to gather these stories and convey them to the administration, several posters suggested – as though, confronted with the documentary evidence of actual student preference, the university would rethink its distribution of resources.
Seriously? It seems to me that anyone who considers this for more than ten minutes has to recognize that “student demand” is a construct: it is the product of a pervasive, cross-institutional pedagogy in social and educational value in which students are immersed from (at least) primary school onward. If students are demanding STEM in record numbers, this is a because they have been systematically invited to embrace a number of interlocking beliefs: that
STEM fields matter to the welfare and future of human societies more than other fields -- that social problems respond best to technocratic solutions;
college is a course of career training;
college is an investment that ought to be maximized in order to yield the highest possible return in the form of lifelong higher income;
STEM fields represent areas of continuing high-growth, recession-proof employment.
“Student demand” is a fact insofar as it reproduces these assumptions, which are already endemic to the privatized, market-driven university. Other forms of “student demand” (for example, demands for a more racially and ethnically diverse faculty that better reflects regional and national demographics) are routinely ignored.
The university is by no means the only social institution to promulgate these neoliberal assumptions, but it is among the most important. Certainly, the notion that the university is merely changing to “respond” to STEM-focused student demand is absurd, since the university, increasingly beholden to private philanthropy (vastly skewed toward STEM initiatives) and increasingly reliant on tuition dollars (and the model of education as investment that normalizes rising tuition costs) has been a key purveyor of these views.
The absurdity of the “student demand” rationale becomes apparent, as well, as soon as we recall that the starving of the humanities (and other non-STEM fields) began long before the number of majors began to plummet. The humanities, but also many of the social sciences, have been bleeding tenure lines, compelled to rely on lecturers (who are not defined as researchers) and, worse still, part-time lecturers for decades, since long before the 2008 recession or the rise in STEM enrollments. The story of the humanities begins with the rule of austerity, not with declining demand.
I would also argue that the withdrawal of resources from humanities fields has hampered to a greater or lesser extent the ability of their faculty to build the kind of cutting edge programs and curricula that can most successfully compete for student interest. This has certainly been true in my own English department, where retirements have vastly outpaced hires. Several years of an outright hiring freeze, followed by the acquisition of a single line when we made a compelling curricular case for three or four, have made it virtually impossible to reflect at the curricular level many of the most important and compelling developments in the field. And again, this is happening during years when majors were at an all-time high.
In short, the humanities and allied fields are not “dying” a “natural” (market-determined) death, but have been systematically murdered – starved of resources and plundered of the credit hours they generate.
Here we come to the final missing piece in this “decline of the humanities” story: the relatively lower earnings of non-STEM majors. This is invoked as one of the reasons for shifting “student demand.” But as Chris Newfield has shown, it is not that the skills these graduates bring are not valued in the marketplace, but rather that their possessors are perceived as interchangeable and thus easily replaceable. There is no need for higher pay when there is always someone else to fill the job (Unmaking the Public University, chapter 8).
But what happens when years of downsizing non-STEM graduates means that the glut vanishes – when employers have to compete for workers proficient in, say, critical analysis, writing, or multi-cultural literacy? It will not be possible simply to reboot the myriad departments that are now being cut to the bone – and beyond. The damage being done is irreversible. PhDs in the field are increasingly moving into community college positions or alt-ac careers, even as humanities graduate programs across the country are slashing ever further the number of students admitted. There will be no way back from this devastation when market demand picks up.
The idea of a university organized around market (mislabeled “student”) demand is radically unsustainable. It is unsustainable because, in shrinking the humanities, the university cannibalizes its own budgetary life support (as Long's article makes vivid). But it is, unsustainable, too, because one cannot simply eviscerate and then resurrect departments and programs according to the inevitably shifting and fundamentally short-term calculations of the market.
In this moment, the resistance to the increasing privatization of the public university has taken the form of the demand for free tuition. This demand is fundamental to any effort at reclaiming public higher education. But it is not a sufficient demand. It must be linked to a broader recognition that market forces cannot organize the university – and that if this model becomes fully and finally entrenched, what we will have is not a university at all, but a high-priced career training center for the elite.
If this is permitted to occur, I predict we will lose both the battle for free tuition and the battle for the “non-STEM” fields. The fate of the humanities is profoundly linked to the fate of public higher education.
Posted in the Remaking the University blog: