Writing in Inside Higher Ed, University of Texas at Austin history professor Steven Mintz sounded the alarm about a crisis in education that probably isn’t on the radars of most people, declaring, “The Humanities’ Scholarly Infrastructure Is in Utter Disarray.”
That sounds bad! But … what is the “humanities’ scholarly infrastructure”?
Most understand that in addition to teaching, college professors in humanities disciplines also do “research.” “The humanities’ scholarly infrastructure” is the mechanism that allows that research to be produced and disseminated. These journal articles, conferences, seminars, and edited volumes are where original ideas and concepts that will eventually become the boogeymen of right-wing moral panics first take shape, as the sum total of our collective knowledge is advanced. This published research becomes the criteria by which the vast majority of tenure-track faculty at selective institutions—particularly those at elite private and public research universities—are evaluated for tenure and promotion.
Someone has to do all the work of reading, vetting, editing, and publishing all that scholarship—as well as organizing and attending and presenting at those meetings. The people doing that work are, typically, the same folks who are tasked with producing the original research: tenure-track and tenured college faculty, and those who hope to land that kind of job. But this system is breaking down. As Mintz declares, “Editors … are desperate to find scholars to review articles, prospectuses and book manuscripts.” Department chairs needing external reviewers for candidates for tenure and promotion are struggling to find willing participants.
According to reporting done by Colleen Flaherty, also at Inside Higher Ed, journal editors are saying that, while the numbers of articles submitted for publication are as strong as ever, when it comes to peer review, if it previously took three to four requests to find a reviewer to read a submitted article and offer their reaction, editors are now trying eight or more reviewer candidates to land on one who will do the job. Ken Kolb, chairman of sociology at Furman University, told Flaherty he took some heat for tweeting that tenured scholars need to step up and do more peer reviews because the lives of junior faculty were “on hold.” Many faculty replied that they were doing what they could, but faculty burnout is real, with evidence emerging that significant numbers are choosing to leave the profession.
Mintz considers the possibility that these problems are rooted in faculty experiencing alienation and burnout, rooted in a dawning recognition that the academic life of the mind may not be worth the hustle and grind. But in the end, he sees the central problem as a “shift in humanists’ professional identity” away from viewing themselves as part of a particular discipline (history, English, etc.). Too many faculty, he writes, now embrace “hyperindividualism,” where those professional obligations are secondary to the drive to improve one’s own relative position.