Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois

Illinois Department of English Blog


Welcome to the Department of English blog.

My name is Vicki Mahaffey and I took over as
head of the department on July 1, 2016. I'll be using this site to post updates and information of interest to our faculty, students, and alumni,
along with reflections about our discipline(s) in particular and the humanities in general. As anyone who has ever worked or studied here knows, the Department of English is a vibrant place. If you have something you'd like to see posted here, or if you want to contact me about the content of this blog, drop me an email at

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A New Deal for the Humanities

You may have noticed that this last summer was the summer of “the crisis in the humanities.” I’m using those scare-quotes advisedly: whether or not you think that “crisis” is the best way to describe what’s happening to the humanities right now, it’s undeniable that every major intellectual journal and newspaper of record published one or more articles during the last few months about the dire circumstances of the humanities.

I’m not sure what I think about this language of crisis. On the one hand, it’s undeniable that times are tough—especially for new and recent Ph.D.’s looking for tenure-track employment. On the other hand, as my colleague Siobhan Somerville reminded me the other day, the rhetoric of crisis projects an idealized picture of the now-lost traditional university—and thus forgets that that traditional university was not necessarily a democratic panacea. Additionally, all the talk of crisis tends to distract from the many, many valuable things we do every day: creating new knowledge about history, culture, and ideas, engaging the imaginations of our students, and teaching them to write more clearly and think more critically.

Various colleagues from Illinois (and elsewhere) have joined in on these discussions about the value of the humanities. A couple of months back, Matti Bunzl, the director of our Program in Jewish Culture and Society, used his experience as Artistic Director of the Chicago Humanities Festival to offer some remarks in Inside Higher Ed on how we might do a better job at promoting the humanities.

Now, English Department colleagues Gordon Hutner and Feisal Mohamed have an excellent piece online at The New Republic that explores the particular challenges of the humanities at public research universities. Gordon and Feisal describe how current pressures to reform the university in the image of the marketplace are making it harder and harder for students to choose humanities majors in fields such as literature, philosophy, and classics; they make note of some of the public university humanities programs that have been closed (or threatened with closure) both in North America and beyond; and they ask the critical question: “Do we really want to become a society where public institutions focus on technical training and elite schools catering to the wealthy have a monopoly on cultivating imagination?”

Gordon and Feisal also offer some practical advice for how to change the conversation: by putting low faculty-student ratios back at the center of the evaluation of teaching (instead of valuing the way that MOOCs offer virtual classes for tens of thousands of students at a time); and by asking questions about the administrative bloat that has taken place on campus in recent decades even as tenure-track faculty lines have been cut.

Ultimately, Gordon and Feisal call for “A New Deal for the Humanities.” If you happen to be on campus on September 18, you can join the crucial conversation about what this would mean by coming to the symposium they have organized on exactly this question. More information can be found here.

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