Medieval Studies in the ‘Crisis in the Humanities’ /Robert Stanton

Medieval Studies in the ‘Crisis in the Humanities’

Robert Stanton, Department of English, Boston College, Boston, MA

In her introduction to this forum, Mary Dockray-Miller points to the tension between the routine invocation of teaching excellence in college and university mission statements, ongoing criticism of the way the humanities and liberal arts are taught at the undergraduate level, and increasingly pressing questions about their aims, goals, and ultimate value. Since our roundtable at the BABEL conference in Boston in September of 2012, the debate has revved up considerably. The June 2013 release of the report by the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences produced a spate of opinions about the uses and abuses of the humanities at the undergraduate level. In the New York Times alone, David Brooks (a member of the commission) bemoaned the supposed turn away from ‘the old notions of truth, beauty, and goodness’ to ‘political and social categories like race, class and gender’ (a dichotomy many find distinctly false); Verlyn Klinkenborg lamented ‘the decline of the English major’ thanks largely to specialization and technical narrowness; and Stanley Fish criticized the report’s ‘bland commonplaces’ while predicting it would sit on a shelf. Among the more thoughtful and data-driven of the contributions were those by Michael Bérubé and Scott Saul, both of whom pointed out that the supposed decline in humanities majors is largely an illusion brought on in part by the demographic bulge of the Baby Boomers. (Almost three years ago now, my colleague at Boston College, Mary Crane, suggested that we take a break from defending the humanities and focus on practical, measurable, long-term goals and collaborations with other disciplines.)

I regularly teach an Intro to Graduate Studies/Research Methods in English course at Boston College, and I think it’s always worth keeping issues of undergraduate pedagogy at play in the graduate classroom, partly so that we can better understand our grad students’ backgrounds, contexts, and needs, and partly so that they can be better prepared to teach undergrads.  One class meeting always focuses on the canon and canonicity, and a substantial part of that class is always taken up with a narrative retrospective of the students’ undergraduate curricula—were they too canonical? not canonical enough? theory-free? theory-heavy?—and how they shaped their own desires and expectations in the literary field. When I assign book chapters about the purposes and goals of humanities, liberal arts, and English education, I tend to privilege works that take a historical perspective on issues of pedagogy, research, professionalism, and institutional practices, and I’ve found that students respond very positively to that kind of historicism. Although I constantly rotate the readings, some current favorites in this vein are Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (1996; now a classic that has inspired much subsequent work; I assign the section on the blandly pernicious term ‘excellence’); Frank Donoghue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (2008; very much in the Readings tradition); Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History (1987, updated in 2007; a seminal work in historicizing the academic profession); Marjorie Garber, A Manifesto for Literary Studies (2003; a characterization of what literary studies can do that other disciplines don’t, and a plea for a careful and limited use of historicism); Geoffrey Galt Harpham, The Humanities and the Dream of America (2011; at once a critical historicization of the concept of humanities and a defense and a celebration of it as an American ideal); Martha Nussbaum, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010; a utopian manifesto); Marc Bousquet, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (2008; an excoriating critique of the shift to adjunct labor and the transformation of the doctorate-holder into what Bousquet terms a ‘waste product’ of graduate education); and Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (2010). Menand is especially clear on the postwar ‘Golden Age’ ascendancy of research as a defining category of the professiorate:

For the first time in the history of American higher education, research, rather than teaching or service, defined the model for the professor—not only in the doctoral institutions, but all the way down the institutional ladder. This strengthened the grip of the disciplines on scholarly and pedagogical practice. Professors identified with their disciplines, which constitute a national ‘community,’ first and with their institutions second. (Menand, 2010, 76)

The MA students in the class respond directly to the distinctions—whether real or perceived, but always institutionally significant—among research, teaching, and one’s larger intellectual profile, relationships often occluded at the undergraduate level and, for some, hazy even in the early stages of graduate school. Discussions of the demographic changes and shifting academic job market since the 1970s, and especially since the 2008 financial crisis, lead immediately and inevitably to discussions of the ascendancy of adjunct and part-time labor in academic institutions.

At my institution, enrollments in the English major and most other humanities majors have been declining steadily for the last fifteen years, while the Economics Department is bursting at the seams and struggles to provide seats even for its required courses. The decline has accelerated since 2008 crash, which has only exacerbated the seemingly inevitable crisis mentality of much of the discussion on humanities pedagogy (as Jennifer Brown details in her contribution to this forum). In response to profit- and market-driven critiques of the humanities, the temptation to revise expressed goals and values from within the field is great. In a post on In The Middle, Julie Orlemanski warns against redefining the humanities as a reaction against market values in academia which themselves may be a large part of the problem:

My conviction is that this emergency in the humanities cannot be resolved from inside the field, and it is therefore a poor justification for fundamentally revising how we do what we do. In fact, I’m inclined to believe that it is a good idea to shield our basic methods from strategic ‘crisis-response’ as much as we can.  This ‘crisis,’ I would argue, does not really point to one phenomenon or problem. Instead, its urgency flows from at least two sources, two opposed demands, which together create a kind of double bind for the humanities. On the one hand, university administrators, trustees, donors, and political leaders who are concerned with constructing market-driven higher education see in the humanities a failure of profitability. Programs are defunded and devalued accordingly. But to ‘avert’ such a crisis by way of disciplinary method involves us in a project of self-negation: we ‘solve the problem’ by ceasing to differ and stand apart from neo-liberal market values. (Orlemanski, 2012)

This is a timely warning, especially for medieval studies, which possesses an inherent interdisciplinarity that has often made it vulnerable to the buffetings of disciplinary rearrangement. Medievalists tend to sit slightly uneasily in their departments, in part because of disciplinary anomalies: I teach in an English Department, but a lot of the material in my classrooms consists of Latin, French, Italian, and other languages, often in translation; I also teach Old English, Old Norse, and History of the English language. Any department that responds to questions and criticisms of the purpose or value of the humanities in a purely utilitarian way, as Orlemanski warns, is likely to suspect, at the very least, the value of interdisciplinary, cross-field, and cross-language teaching, especially when sustaining such teaching involves somewhat complex institutional arrangements. Team teaching is a case in point. Whether a course is taught jointly within a traditional discipline by colleagues in a single department or across disciplinary lines by faculty in more than one department, it will involve some combination of course releases, course loads rearranged and distributed over multiple years, extra stipends, overload/volunteer teaching, and an external collaborative institution such as MIT’s Graduate Consortium in Women’s Studies. The vulnerability of such courses to institutional conservatism and inertia make them potential targets when streamlining and rationalization are on the agenda, but the best of this type of teaching can illustrate the value of the large, difficult-to-define project called ‘humanities’ by reaching through and across disciplines to explore deep questions of meaning and value.

Medieval studies offers several specific dimensions that can contribute to the reevaluation of the purpose and value of humanistic education. First, studying medieval texts, history, art, and culture in any depth requires at least a modicum of learned tools. Undergraduates in a literature survey, helped along by very brief language lessons, marginal glosses, and footnotes, grapple with Chaucer’s English; those who take Old English in order to read Beowulf in the original quickly discover the complexity of studying an inflected language stretching back more than a millennium; most doctoral candidates must master several languages, in addition to the discourses of a specific discipline such as art history or archaeology, in order to read the texts or explain the artifacts at the heart of their dissertation. Studying historicism, palaeography, the history of educational disciplines, and many other seemingly extrinsic subjects helps construct a robust critical and methodological apparatus with which to confront medieval worlds and their meanings. My own field faces the common skepticism towards academic study of English literature, since supposedly any literate person can read, understand, study, and analyze a novel, story, poem; medievalists know that the study of older literature requires an array of technical skills, and by extension, that the reading of more modern literature can also benefit from refined, customized, consciously used terminologies and critical methodologies.

Finally, studying the mentalities, cultural forms, and material structures of periods as far back as the Middle Ages provides an indispensible perspective on fundamental and abiding questions that are both transhistorical and historically inflected. These include considerations of race, class, religious affiliation, gender, and power, as well as the history of the humanities and liberal arts themselves, which have deep medieval roots. The origins of these disciplines within an educational structure dominated by the universities and the church (coupled with their subsequent development as cultural forms that provided an alternative to, and at times challenged, established religious learning) resonates powerfully with current debates about the relationship between church and state and the roles of school and family in the formation of individuals and citizens. In the end, a broad, contextualized, historically long view of institutions and cultural forms cultivates an awareness of the relationships among disciplines, the questions they ask, the interests of those asking the questions, the beneficiaries of both the questions and the answers. Medievalists, then, are in a good position to illuminate the meaning and value of humanistic education. Our critical perspectives usefully warn against a neutering of humanism in the service of pure utility, instead fostering a broad, ongoing interrogation of the roles and interests of individuals, social groups, and institutions as these actors reform and redefine the humanities for the coming generation.




American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 2013. Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences. Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Bérubé, Michael. 2013. The Humanities, Unraveled. Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 February.

Bousquet, Marc. 2008. How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. New York: New York University Press.

Brooks, David. 2013. The Humanist Vocation. New York Times, 20 June.

Crane, Mary. 2011. Stop Defending the Liberal Arts. Inside Higher Ed, 17 January.

Donoghue, Frank. 2013. The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. New York: Fordham University Press.

Fish, Stanley. 2013. A Case for the Humanities Not Made. Opinionator (blog), New York Times, 24 July.

Garber, Marjorie. 2003. A Manifesto for Literary Studies. Seattle, WA: Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities. Distributed by University of Washington Press.

Graff, Gerald. 2007. Professing Literature: An Institutional History. Twentieth anniversary ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. 2011. The Humanities and the Dream of America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Klinkenborg, Verlyn. 2013. The Decline and Fall of the English Major. New York Times, 22 June.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 2012. The Graduate Consortium in Women’s Studies.

Menand, Louis. 2010. The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. New York: Norton.

Nussbaum, Martha. 2010. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Orlemanski, Julie. 2012. Scales of Reading. Posted by Eileen Joy. In the Middle (blog), 8 August.

Readings, Bill. 1996. The University in Ruins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Saul, Scott. 2013. The Humanities in Crisis? Not at Most Schools. New York Times, 3 July.


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