Making the Case for Our Disciplines

Originally published in the Summer 2019 MLA Newsletter

A big part of what the MLA executive director does is argue and advocate for the value of studying what we study. When I am invited to campuses, I work with faculty members on ways to help their students understand and appreciate the full range of skills, values, and perspectives they get from majoring in our fields. Humanities majors learn about cultural competence, writing in different modes, living with ambiguity, evaluating sources, and much more. These things all make for a better life as well as good career prospects.

The value of studying the humanities also needs a national conversation, and we are working to introduce it into as many settings as possible. The MLA does that work in partnership with other scholarly associations such as the American Historical Association, the American Philosophical Association, and the National Humanities Alliance. Professional associations in the humanities know that if our disciplines are to thrive, they must be seen by undergraduates, high schoolers, parents, and legislators as valuable at an individual level—in helping students with careers—as well as valuable to the community at large—in helping society solve social and technological problems.

Boosting undergraduate enrollments in our courses is central to what we try to achieve. And making the case for the value of an undergraduate degree in language, literature, writing studies, or cultural studies is absolutely tied to making the case for studying these fields at the doctoral level.

The value of humanities degrees lies in the skills, values, and perspectives students acquire as well as in content area knowledge, and the same is true at the doctoral level. If we believe that a bachelor’s degree in French or performance studies prepares students for a range of careers, we should also believe that a doctorate does the same. And just as we want to see the values and perspectives of humanities majors in many different industries and agencies and parts of society, so we should understand the value of advanced study in the humanities to be crucial to the culture.

For years the MLA has encouraged doctoral recipients in language, literature, writing, and cultural studies to think beyond the professoriat when thinking about careers. The Connected Academics program has run proseminars and boot camps to introduce doctoral students to a variety of workplaces that seek the skills humanities PhDs have to offer, and the program has helped students understand why they might want such careers and how best to get them.

In many industries, from state humanities councils to arts organizations to research firms like Ithaka S+R, the value of advanced training in the humanities is understood. A humanities PhD produces deep research and writing skills that can be broken down into a range of component parts—the ability to use different databases and archives to find source material, to engage with and evaluate appropriate sources, and to synthesize ideas and produce original arguments that contribute substantially to an ongoing critical conversation. Dissertations are multipart projects, with deadlines and revisions, and they need project management skills; those skills may be taught by a PhD program or developed on one’s own in self-defense, but if you’ve finished a PhD, chances are that you have them.

If we believe in the value of studying the humanities, we should be prepared to advocate for them. This advocacy can take many forms. We can help students, career services offices, and admissions offices understand the postgraduation value of a humanities degree. We can talk in public settings about the importance of bringing humanities perspectives to social, political, and technological problems. We can work with our government relations officers at colleges and universities to make sure they are telling the stories of the humanities to our state legislatures. (The 2020 MLA Annual Convention in Seattle will feature a how-to session on advocacy, with government relations officers from universities, officials from the National Humanities Alliance, and the president of the University of Washington, Ana Mari Cauce.)

Advocacy can help build the undergraduate enrollments that are essential for the survival of doctoral programs. But just as essential for those graduate programs is advocacy for the value of graduate degrees. No one expects every PhD in chemistry or engineering to become a college professor, because everyone understands that advanced knowledge in those fields has value in industries beyond academia. We must do the advocacy work to make clear the value of what we study for careers beyond academia as well, and we must help our students understand that value. The MLA has resources to help departments advocate for changes that can make a difference. Hit us up.