Head of the (middle) class?

September, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

The Guardian reported today on the fear that the humanities were becoming increasingly gentrified. Reports in Britain show students from lower-income backgrounds avoiding programs like history and philosophy in favour of career-oriented studies. Why?

The study shows a fascinating, and terrifying, situation. Not only are low-income students systemically barred from higher education and advanced degrees on account of their economic resources. But we are simultaneously creating a culture around the humanities where the lowest income students are unable to take same the risk as their more affluent colleagues to pursue degrees in history and other humanities disciplines.

The study upon which the article was based spoke to enrollments and class issues in the UK, but it felt familiar even to me despite having been raised and educated to MA level in Canada and then to the PhD in the United States. The article’s discussion of working-class students’ fear of studies that might not lead in any obvious direction spoke to my own educational history.

I loved the humanities, and excelled in them throughout secondary school. But what could I do with an English degree or a History degree? With that in mind I found a compromise: I would study languages (German) and business for an international management degree. This worked for a time. I enjoyed studying German, and learning to communicate in another language opened up conceptual worlds to me I hadn’t imagined. But it was a still a compromise. The enjoyment I derived from studying German balanced against the loathing I felt for most of my business courses.

In the end I dropped out of business school to undertake studies in History. But even then, after two further years of study, I still feared I’d never find employment with the material I enjoyed, and so I left the humanities and returned to business. After many more flip flops and combined degrees I ended up completing degree requirements in all three areas: German, History, and Management. But History won as I soon went on to an MA. But some of the same concerns and struggles followed me there, as they have with other working-class colleagues who went on to graduate studies in History.

In Britain, the Guardian reports, the question of class and education is particularly significant because tuition rates are widely expected to be increased dramatically over the next few years. Increased tuition rates will, naturally, be felt strongest by those least able to pay them. And even if student funding sources are expanded, this does little to overcome what appears to be a mental obstacle preventing non-elite students from seeing the humanities as a viable option.

But what about North America where tuition rates are already on the rise? What about my former institution, the University of California, where tuition rates are growing astronomically to help offset the system-wide financial disaster? Under these kinds of circumstances, how do we maintain access for all to humanities studies?

But it’s not really about access. Grants, scholarships, and loans can be expanded for the lowest income students, after all. How do we actually convince them that the humanities are in fact a viable option, that they offer career paths, that they contribute more than ideals. And then, how do we create an academy where we can mean it, and believe it ourselves?

This post originally appeared at History Compass Exchanges on
27 September 2010.


No Respect! Are Humanities the Rodney Dangerfield of Academia?

June, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

The recent bloodbath in humanities programs has left me reeling.

Most recently there was The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London. According to the Times Higher Education, there has been a unit at UCL covering this subject since 1966. This world-renowned centre currently operates with 29 staff, including 12 academics, and 54 students, including 25 PhDs. This is a significant scholarly presence that has long led international scholarship in the history of medicine. No more. It will be phased out over the next two years.

Then there is the case of Middlesex University. Having already closed its History department in 2006, Philosophy is now on the chopping block. Opposition to the closure has gained support from scholars and public intellectuals around the world including Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, and Slavoj Žižek. But it’s clear from stories like this that humanities programs are considered expendable, suitable victims of cost-cutting measures.

Closer to home, Canada recently invested $200 million in the Canada Excellence Research Chairs initiative. It attracted 19 world-renowned scholars to Canada, but included no scholars in the Arts and Social Sciences. Not a single, solitary one. (It also included no women!)

The connection between these stories, and others we could collect, is a denigration of the humanities. Funding priorities, department closures, and the suggestion that humanities scholars are a drain on limited resources illustrate this over and over again. There are a number of reasons for this, of course, ranging from the recent economic downturn, the ongoing corporatization of the academy, but also just an ongoing, general devaluing of the humanities.

But why do we suffer this fate? Why don’t we garner wider support? Are we too isolated in the ivory tower? I think there’s something else at play. In one way, I think we’re victims of our own success.

History remains among the most widely popular disciplines among the general public. Period films are huge money-makers, and the History Channel has been a success for more than a decade. Yet historians feel constantly under siege. Of course there can be a world of difference between popular and academic history, but it’s often a fuzzy line. We’ve done an amazing job of making our discipline interesting and accessible to non-specialists.

The consequences of this are perhaps also our biggest challenges.

Non-specialists have no problem telling me the “truth” about history, the ways people interacted in the past, the priorities my research subjects held, and the motivations of past historical actors. This is based on intuition, “common sense,” and also genuine interest. But it also positions non-specialists on an equal footing with scholars, people who have devoted at least a decade to complex questions and research. Few would tell my colleagues in nuclear physics or genetic biology, who have the same level of training as I do, the “truth” about their field, the interaction of subatomic particles, or the molecular makeup of DNA strands. But they immediately, whole-heartedly, but unmaliciously tell me all about history.

They are invested in the discipline but don’t respect its practitioners.

This equal playing field in the public’s mind diminishes the need for specialists, and their funding, and their departments. I worry that this kind of casual denigration of the humanities is what “filters” up to non-specialist government, administration, and funding bodies who enact the same assumptions in funding, hiring, and administrative decisions.

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the bloodbath. But what is the solution? How do we remain relevant and respected? How do we bridge popular and academic history without losing the unique skills and insights that specialists offer? How will we survive?

This post was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
3 June 2010.

The Strange Case of Postdocs in Canada

May, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

Are they students? Are they staff? Universities in Canada can’t quite seem to decide just what exactly a postdoc is. To be fair a postdoc is in a strange in-between place; s/he is no longer a student, but not yet a professor (even though he or she may conduct original research and teach undergraduate and even graduate students). This might not seem such an important issue at first glance. But there are enormous work-related, benefits, and tax implications that hinge on the definition of a postdoc. And as a postdoctoral fellowships becomes an almost mandatory step toward tenure-track positions, the implications loom large for many of us.

After 10 or 15 years of post secondary education, for many PhDs the next step will be a postdoctoral fellowship. Not only do these fellowships potentially afford  time to revise dissertation manuscripts for publication, design  courses, and solidify professional networks, they act as another step forward toward tenure-track positions. Ideally they come without teaching requirements, but might include teaching responsibilities from one or two courses per year or more depending on the fellowship. But as faculty hires plummet, and PhD numbers expand, this step is becoming increasingly necessary in order to remain competitive.

So far this doesn’t seem so bad. We all know that academia is becoming ever more competitive and positions ever fewer. Nothing shocking there. The issue, however, is that for many postdocs the issue of defining their position is critical. Many postocs while not enjoying the tax benefits of students also miss out on employment benefits offered faculty and staff.

The issue came to a head last year when after Le Devoir reported that Quebec universities, which had offered postdocs the tax exemptions given to students, had been instructed by the Canadian Revenue Agency to stop doing so. Now disallowed from the benefits of students and without access to those of staff, postdocs got the worst of both worlds, along with a substantial, unplanned, and significant loss of income owing to increased taxes.

Many fear that in order to gain any tax exemptions, postdocs might be defined as some kind of student or trainee. The Ryerson Free Press suggests that a new category of trainee might institutionalize and formalize yet another time-consuming step to professional stability that does little to help postdocs, but everything to maintain universities’ access to qualified but low-payed labour. And both statuses might come with new fees and costs for debit-ridden individuals already strapped for cash in the years before achieving tenure-track appointments. Both the Ryerson Free Press and the Protect Canadian Postdocs site, in fact, are already reporting postdoc “trainee” fees being levied at the University of Toronto.

This issue has become so fraught that two scholars at Canadian institutions have created the Protect Canadian Postdocs website to follow developments and highlight the situation faced by postdocs at their own and other universities. Untenured, they choose to remain anonymous to avoid aggravating their university administrations and threatening their own careers. With less to lose, Tom Spears of the Ottawa Citizen last month likened some postdocs to “indentured servants, with lots of degrees.” Now many fear that in addition they may become cash cows for cash-strapped universities.

No doubt great benefits come with postdoctoral work that gives recent PhDs a foothold on the academic ladder. But postdocs’ relationship to universities needs to be explicitly determined to avoid even further creating an underclass of high-skilled, low-payed teacher-researchers in the Canadian academy.

A number of sites and online petitions have sprung up in protest:

Canadian Postdoc Tax Petitions

Petition to Maintain the Competitiveness of a Postdoctoral Researcher in Canada

This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
6 May 2010.