How Not to Debate Humanities Reform

The Case of Gary Olson

How Not to Debate Humanities ReformOn Feb. 9, the Chronicle of Higher Education published Gary Olson’s op-ed “How Not to Reform Humanities Scholarship,” in which Olson contends that many of the changes being promoted of late–especially dissertation reform and the digital humanities–“would damage not only the careers of aspiring and new professors but also the reputation of the humanities. How Not to Debate Humanities Reform

Reading through the comments section following Olson’s piece, it appears he succeeded only in damaging his own reputation. It’s not the positions that Olson argues which cause outrage, but the lack of scholarship behind them. With unintended irony, Olson defends against the “lowering of standards” without himself doing much, if any, research in the fields he presumes to judge.

As commentators point out, his assertions about the lack of peer review in online journals and digital publishing are untrue and hopelessly out of date, simply confirming that the fears he expresses about how colleagues on tenure committees will respond to digital scholarship are indeed based on misconceptions rather than fact. Since when did we make policies to accommodate ignorance and prejudice? Utterly lacking here is any familiarity with the actual work being done in multimodal, multimedia, and digital humanities scholarship–innovative, rigorous, exciting, and–yes–peer-reviewed.

Shocking, too, is Olson’s claim that the near doubling of time to degree for the doctorate is not the result of structural and institutional dysfunction but  “a function of some dissertators’ personal lives, as they attempt to juggle numerous priorities along with completing a dissertation.” Where did these “priorities” come from if not from a system that demands ever-increasing teaching, conference-going,

And scholarly production from graduate students, and at poverty wages? Blaming the victim here is odious, as is Olson’s suggestion that their problems are “personal.” Scholars such as Louis Menand, Frank Donoghue, Marc Bousquet, and Cary Nelson have recently given us well-researched books detailing the structural factors that have created the crisis in doctoral completion rates and times.

Olson should do his homework in these sources before offering such uninformed opinion. The doubling of time to degree is not an indication of deeper intellectual “concentration” or an antidote to the mythical “sway of attention-deficit to which we are all prone now.” Scholars before 1970 who completed the doctorate in half the time did not live in an Eden without distractions, though they did often speed through without teaching two or more composition sections each semester,

Without giving conference papers, and without submitting seminar papers to journals or trying to write dissertations that were already books.Finally, the argument that current reform proposals would make current methods of scholarly evaluation difficult if not impossible to administer is an argument in favor of reform, not one against it.

Many current tenure and promotion cases hinge on two or three outside letters of evaluation of dubious objectivity (whether for or against), whereas open access and digital humanities work provides a far greater range and quantity of evaluative expertise in response to new work. The unfairness, narrowness, and elitism of the current system is hardly an argument for preserving it.

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