Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The depressing state of the humanities

This article about the job prospects (in academia and elsewhere) of humanities PhDs is one of the most depressing things I've ever read.


One of the most awful things about it is the fact that it has a certain ring of truth about it. A clear argument citing plausible motivations for all parties.

It is unworthy to feel a slight shock at hearing a humanities graduate thinking in this way.

I only really know scientists these days, but I'm constantly surprised by how hard they're prepared to work in order to earn starvation-level wages on temporary contracts. They are also constantly forced to relocate, which must have a terrible effect on their personal relationships and happiness.

The real tragedy, of course, is how much time they have to spend scrounging up the next temporary contract. Time that they should be spending, while they're young and keen, adding new crumbs to the mighty molehill of knowledge.

And a candidate for the second real tragedy, of course, is the way that, in the six months of the one-year contract that they can actually use for science, they are forced to avoid any sort of speculative thinking in favour of doing safe research that can be predicted to have publishable outcomes.

I'm not sure about that last point. It may be that having one's nose pressed firmly against the grindstone might actually be the best way to have the 'I just invented a new theory of the chemical bond' moments in the shower.

But it seems that the position of the humanities post-docs is even worse.

I would laugh, since I rather despise the humanities on the basis of a crude stereotype formed at college that I like to think of as 'Gender Issues in Meaninglessness: a Constructive Hermeneutics of the Shakespearean Strawberry'.

But we're talking about real people here: The nice girls who'd somehow managed to convince themselves, not only that the study of literature was a subject, but that it was a subject that mattered, and that they had something interesting to say.

They maybe need disabusing of these notions, but surely it would be possible to do it gently rather than exploiting and undermining them over years until there's nothing left.

If they're going to spend years starving in garrets before committing suicide wouldn't it be better if they spent the time writing poems or stories? Or maybe some book reviews or something else useful or fun?

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