The humanities & the university

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John Emerson has a long post up ruminating on the symbiosis between the humanities and the academy. John’s post appeals to me obviously, I certainly will never pursue a doctorate in the humanities or social sciences, but I have interests in Roman & Chinese history (my lack of fluency in other languages serves as a block on any scholarly contribution because of my first order ignorance of the primary literature). Some of the points John brings up will be familiar to those in the natural sciences as well, i.e., the perpetual post-doc ~ the nomadic adjunct. Our own David Nierengarten (Ph.D. biochemistry, Berkeley) expressed opinions that were not so far different from John’s in substance. I have a friend who is completing his doctorate in physical chemistry and now looking to go into the business management consulting world (merry X-mas B!).


  1. I certainly will never pursue a doctorate in the humanities or social sciences 
    Weren’t you talking about getting one in history a short while ago?

  2. At OHSU I knew several disgruntled bio post-docs working for other, plus one guy who had his own two-year grant. My understanding is that if the guy with the grant didn’t get significant results, he’d be lucky to get another grant, and while I was there, he was starting to fear that he’d chosen the wrong problem. 
    I know that there are similiar dilemmas in scientific areas, but by and large scientists can fall back to being techs. My son’s cousin is an ABD Stanford biology burnout, and he can earn $40-60 k a year and take long vacations. Another guy was thinking of bypassing the PhD because he could do real well with a MS.

  3. talk is cheap. short time is 3 years. and the language barrier is a killer. 
    and yes john, you are right that science people have viable back up plans since there is a large and (relatively) vibrant science private sector. humanities people have to go further afield, like publishing….

  4. Or ESL in Eastern Asia – a profession which, while permitting a lifestyle of great comfort and convenience – and for many a source of great fulfillment in and of itself – remains a much despised low-status occupation within the expat communities of this part of the world.  
    Does enable you to lead the bohemian life of an amateur scholar that Emerson extols, however.

  5. Great piece John. Really sums up the reservations of many friends and acquaintances of mine regarding the humanities as practised in modern, academic institutions.  
    Would you advocate an informal republic of letters instead, where reputations or careers are based upon the acclaim or indifference of a community of eager readers and correspondants? I find this idea much more preferrable – it also produced all the great Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century.

  6. I realise that this is a science blog, and my impression is that many of its most frequent visitors hail from a science/mathematics background. Maybe I am wrong in assuming that I am one of few regular visitors trained in the humanities, but if I can provide you with a little perspective, the undergraduate,liberal arts degree that I obtained from one of the most reputable and prestigious institutions of tertiary learning in my home country (Australia) taught me absolutely nothing that I could not have learnt myself. Except, perhaps, for the fact that having Phd is no safeguard against stupidity. Some of my professors – especially those toiling within “Cultural Studies” related fields, were some of the most ignorant and intellectually parochial individuals that I have ever met.

  7. Damon plays an autodidact from the wrong side of the tracks who trounces a sneering Harvard upperclassman by talking circles around his rote academic blather. “You’re getting an education for $150,000 that you could be getting for $1.50 in overdue library fees,” 
    (from _good willing hunt_) 
    parochialism is rife of course in science. but the theory (from what i remember) is that humanists were supposed to take a general view….

  8. Have you studied Chinese Razib?

  9. “there are MA and PhD programs specifically teaching how to write grants or how to run foundations. “ 
    Really? Where?

  10. Have you studied Chinese Razib? 
    no, i’m very bad with langauges. i spent 3 years on french in elementary school, 1 year in high school, and all i can manage is “mange moi” :)

  11. I spent six years with French and am probably at about the same level. The best experience I had in French class was acing a ten question t/f (v/f?) pop quiz where I wrote all the answers prior to hearing the questions. 
    In college I took a fair amount of Chinese and it was a completely different experience for me. Forget about the passe compose vs the imparfait and all that crap. The grammar is great. Pretty much straight svo with really simple tenses. Hardly any politeness levels and all that baggage that you get with Japanese. The tones aren’t as tough as some people make them out to be, either. Writing was a bit of a drag, but if you have a good professor it can be sort of interesting. Reading is kind of fun too, because it is not that hard, but to anyone who hasn’t spent time studying it, looks next to impossible. I still remember my joy at being able to figure out a newspaper headline about the nuclear umbrella while in Asia. 
    When I travelled in Asia, I was surprised at how much Chinese I could use, both in that I could communicate well with what I had learned and that even outside of China lots of folks could speak Mandarin. 
    Anyway, what I am trying to get at is–try it next semester if you still can. You will probably be pleasantly surprised. I was.

  12. I am literate in both French and Chinese, and in my opinion, if you are a native-speaker of English, Chinese is much more difficult to learn than French.  
    French is filled with cognate vocabulary – perouse any French -English dictionary and you will find that a large number of the entries consist of the same or similiar words sitting adjacent to each other.  
    I probably invested ten times the amount of effort and the number of hours studying Chinese to acquire a level of literacy on par with that of my French.  
    The amount of information you have to commit to memory is pretty formidable.  
    I am quite impressed if you managed to acquire literacy in Mandarin, Neanderthal . The vast majority of Chinese-language majors I have encountered from Western universities, after studying for Mandarin for four years, and spending at least 12 months in a Sinophone part of the world, are unable to read most street signs.

  13. I can read Chinese much better than I speak it. Chinese reading is comparable to organic chem in that it’s memorization of a lot of detail, with a certain amount of system to it. (The org chem students I’ve known have been med students, and maybe the just studied that way). 
    But Chiese’s lack of inflection is very nice.  
    Kennteoh, I’ve taught in Taiwan and may well go back there.

  14. BTW, my definition of the humanities excludes anything that has been scientifically mastered. (And I think that all humanists should have a basic scientific foundation). If you put all the questions which have been answered scientifically in one bag, there will still be some questions in the other bag. Some of these may be answered by science later, but others of an ethical or political type never will because they’re matters of action, choice, or personal identity-formation. 
    This has nothing to do with supernaturalism, though it’s a little like “the god of the gaps”.

  15. “I can read Chinese much better than I speak it. Chinese reading is comparable to organic chem in that it’s memorization of a lot of detail, with a certain amount of system to it. (The org chem students I’ve known have been med students, and maybe the just studied that way).” 
    I am exactly the same way. I can read most Mandarin writing – with the exception of material that addresses highly specialized or technical topics – with very few problems. But my listening ability is still very weak.  
    This is a pretty common problem – I know plenty of Sinologist who can read anything from the Warring States Period to the present, but who experience great difficulty when trying to order in restaurants.  
    I used to teach in Taiwan as well – while I was studying Mandarin. Great lifestyle – I think I’ve peroused your biography in the past, where you mentioned that you were based there in the 80′s. Taipei has changed a huge amount – wonderful balance between being an affluent, capital city, yet still somehow peripheral and remote. I also like the fact that you can avail yourself of nightmarkets and stall culture, as well as some of the most magnificent, palatial shopping malls that I have ever seen.  
    I wasn’t condoning discrimination against ESL teachers – I appreciate the point you make in your essay about how life as an itinerant, amateur scholar will not engender the praise or respect of most people. I think it’s a real fucking pity.  
    My impression is that the monograph/thesis system emphasises writing where an unprecedented, concrete assertion must be made. This is not necessarily the best or most appropriate approach when writing about art or literature, however – when you are essentially addressing subjective perception or response.

  16. High French is a lot easier than the colloquial (“vulgar”) French, especially if you have some command of English. But this may be true of most languages, I don’t know (I speak Swedish, English, French). 
    Wouldn’t even consider written Mandarin.

  17. I was good at both math/sci and english/history in high school, and intended to major in the latter upon matriculating, but John’s article pretty much sums up why I switched to a more science-y discipline (linguistics). I’ve also been an ESL teacher, though in Barcelona, Spain. I’ll be going back next autumn, and it’s something I wouldn’t trade for the world. Costs-of-living are so cheap elsewhere compared to the US, that it really does allow you to do occasional “research” on your own, provided you have internet access. 
    I came *this* close to applying to PhD programs, but decided against it for another reason John didn’t mention — namely, I’m a big ol’ softy and want to satisfy my paternal instinct as much as possible in my 20s. Psychologically I’m probably in the feminine tail of the male bell curve, so I’m not unlike the 60% of girls at Yale who want to be mothers rather than tenured profs or CEOs. Now, lacking an advanced degree / high social status, pretty much no female in the DC area wants to have my child, but working at a private tutoring center and seeing one-on-one clients in their homes allows for a great deal of interaction w/ young children and adolescents… something most 20-something males need more of to settle them down and take away some of the frustration from not being desirable to the opposite sex. 
    And as shown by the “grandmother from New Jersey” herself, Judith Rich Harris, you can productively contribute to scholarship w/o any official affiliation. True, she wrote in psychology, which is more scientific than history or English, but remember that nature vs nurture issues are almost as blindly ideologically enforced by the university commisars as happens in the humanities.

  18. I realise that this is a science blog, and my impression is that many of its most frequent visitors hail from a science/mathematics background. 
    There should be space in our society for the autodidactic polymath like Razib. Degrees are truly overrated unless one aspires to a profession. Even with a doctoral degree in the natural sciences, very few wind up finding gainful employment in academia. I have a law degree and an accounting undergraduate degree (and thus am qualified to be the bitch-boy to a Fortune 500 client), so 80% of this blog was at first unintelligible to me, but one makes it a challenge and gets better. 
    Most people go to law school because they don’t know what to do after getting an undergraduate degree in English or Poly Sci…and they aspire to make more money than a teacher. But the very best students in my law school had engineering degrees.

  19. i do have interests in various topics above the normal…but i have to beg off being termed polymath, i don’t know jack shit about literature, and any true polymath should know that.

  20. Razib, I’m curious: which is your favorite word, “fuck” or “shit”?

  21. shit. fuck is too vulgar.

  22. what happened to razib’s fuckin shift key?

  23. Finance razib.  
    Gives you a lifestyle that harnesses your skill in math and reasoning and (obscure) general knowledge, while leaving you plenty of free time to amuse yourself being a dilettante polymath. 
    Besides, money is a reputed aphrodisiac for the other gender – So study money.

  24. Yeah, but working in finance is far too time consuming.  
    Being a successful white-collar professional in a modern, free-market society is totally incompatible with being erudite and cultured.  
    And while relative economic advantage is undoubtedly the most potent aphrodisiac known to womankind, as a first world citizen, you enjoy that advantage already, if you move to a developing country.  
    If you want to leverage that, that is.

  25. Here’s one problem with Emerson’s essay. I quote from the essay: 
    “A research scholar at a major university is like a god in heaven” 
    This is definitely not a true statement.  
    Like a lot of people who at some point in their lives wished to become academics and did not, Emerson seems to have a bit of wistful envy left over. But moving past this might help him see that being a non-academic scholar is really not such a bad fate, it some ways it has certain advantages over being the university. Especially in the humanities.

  26. neadertal says, wrt Chinese: 
    Pretty much straight svo with really simple tenses. 
    This might be technical pedantry, but when I studied Mandarin for a while (regretably too short a time) they were not referred to as tenses, but rather as aspects. Moreover, with more than 20 years exposure to Cantonese (spoken) it seems to me that they are clearly not tenses.

  27. kenteoh says: 
    from one of the most reputable and prestigious institutions of tertiary learning in my home country (Australia) 
    Which one might that be? RMIT? Sydney Uni?

  28. MQ. Explain the problem with getting $50,000-plus for not teaching, plus all the other perks faculty have.