The Stony Brook Problem

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The news that SUNY-Stony Brook is cutting and reorganizing some of its humanities programs is not surprising, not at this point. We’ve heard too many dire trends affecting the humanities across the United States not to expect administrative decisions like this one to unfold every few months.

The changes are these:

  • Combine European Languages, Comparative Literature, and Hispanic Languages into one department
  • Shut down graduate programs in Cultural Studies, Comp Lit, and Hispanic Languages
  • Terminate undergraduate majors in Cinema and Cultural Studies, Comparative Literature, and Theater

Yes, it sounds drastic, but one has to assume that if there were sufficient demand for these programs, the changes wouldn’t have been made.  No administrator is going to close programs to which undergraduates flock every semester.  Popularity counts in the competitive market of departments.

There is a petition out there, however, that defends the departments and alleges a political crime under way.  So far, it has collected 3,330 signatures.

The particular grounds of defense are:

  • The Comp Lit graduate program places 80% of its PhDs
  • By its own metrics, Stony Brook ranks the doctoral program in Hispanic Languages “in the 79%” (I’m not sure what that means, but we’ll cite it); professors in the program have won numerous distinguished fellowships
  • Theater Arts is “a pillar of the campus community”

Needless to say, these are weak justifications.  That last phrase, the “pillar” remark, sounds like bureaucratese.  It’s what institutions say when they don’t have empirical evidence.  And when we hear about “placement” of doctoral students, we have to ask about the nature of the jobs accepted.  Are they really tenure-track academic posts, or are they short-term appointments?

Such claims miss what is the most important measure of a department, especially at a time of tightening budgets: as noted above, undergraduate popularity.  This is what matters first to administrators, for reasons both financial and (locally) political.

The calculation isn’t complicated.  A professor who teaches a 3-3 load and handles 450 students each year, with each class nearly full or over-enrolled, looks a lot stronger than one with a 3-3 load but has only 150 students each year, the classes barely half-full.  If demand is weak and money is scattered, why should the administration not favor departments that appear productive over departments that don’t?  If psychology and economics can’t run enough courses and sections to accommodate the number of students who want in, but English and History courses have many open spots, the advantage goes to the former departments.  If undergraduates can’t get into accounting or organic chemistry, parents call the registrar and complain.  When what the last time the dean heard an alumnus say, “My daughter can’t get into a class on Gender Theory–whad’ya gonna do about it?”

I don’t know the enrollment numbers at Stony Brook, but the fact that the petition says nothing about them is suspicious.  It certainly lets us dismiss the rationale suggested by Francine Prose in this commentary on the situation in the Guardian. She says,

Is it entirely paranoid to wonder if these subjects are under attack because they enable students to think in ways that are more complex than the reductive simplifications so congenial to our current political and corporate discourse?

Answer: not “entirely,” but mostly.  But apart from the semi-paranoia, this reasoning, which I’ve heard many times before, leads nowhere.

First of all, to claim that the humanities teach complex thinking any better than the social and physical sciences do is for humanities people to give themselves a great big compliment.  This is no way for humanities professors to make allies around the campus.

Second, to believe that administrators target the humanities departments because the “thinking” that goes on there is threatening to the “corporate discourse” of upper management is to engage in another self-compliment.  It says that a provost actually cares about the forms of thought going on in faculty research and teaching.  In my experience, when professors go into administration, their interest in the modes of disciplinary thought running through the departments under their purview wanes.  They don’t much care whether a department has feminists or leftist cultural critics or old-fashioned humanists.  They just want the faculty to teach well, produce scholarship, and not cause problems.  They love a good Marxist who is popular with students and writes books, but doesn’t break rules or cause embarrassments.

Prose’s assumption is condescending.  It is one issued by someone who doesn’t understand the precise task at the root of the solution.  Instead of accusing the world of undermining the humanities because the humanities point out weaknesses and sins that the powers that be would prefer to conceal, humanities defenders need to make the humanities more appealing to outsiders.  They should drop their arrogance and take seriously the disregard from which the humanities seem to suffer in cases like the Stony Brook development.  One wants to say to the humanists: “Stop being obnoxious!”

Of course, some humanities professors will reply, “We must speak truth to power!”  In fact, that’s what the petition does.  After offering their feeble list of vindications of the targeted departments, the petitioners go for what is now the standard, reliable thrust of anti-Trumpism:

By suspending and eliminating programs and departments with the most international scholars and students and who, thus, tangibly support diversity and global initiatives, the Stony Brook administration is endorsing a divisive brand of American exceptionalism that is championed by the current White House officials.

You got that?  These humanities departments are, in their very nature, contrary to the Trump regime.  They are battalions of diversity fighting against the bigotry of American exceptionalism.

Again, one wonders at this approach–not the self-righteousness, but the blindness.  Among everybody who reads about the Stony Brook closures and the petition are many, many Trump supporters.  The charge can only strike them as, at best, gratuitous.  We can’t blame them if they reply to this sally with gratification over the Stony Brook decision.

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