Saturday, December 02, 2006

Humanities R Us

Today is the big UCLA vs. USC football game, and my undergraduates are all a-twizzle. There are pep rallies, bonfires, even a vigil to protect the campus mascot from dastardly deeds. A number of my students are in the marching band, so they are all out in Pasadena today, performing great feats of lung-foot coordination and some milder feats of musicianship. I wish them well. **

Speaking of these two august institutions, there was an interesting story in the current LA Weekly by Justin Clark about their academic rivalry. Predictably, the two schools are constantly poaching professors from one another; in one incident, USC even tried to hire away five members of the UCLA linguistics department in one fell swoop. A lot of the competition has to do with USC's attempt to rehabilitate its academic reputation as the former University of Spoiled Children my Stanford alumni parents always warned me about. In the past few years, USC has gone from #46 to #27 in the rankings, almost tied with UCLA, and presumably they have their competitive eye on the NoCal schools as well.

Most interesting, however, is the the shifting status of the politics of this rivalry. Back in the 1960s, there was a stark difference between the two campuses: USC watched the growing "disintegration" of its urban neighborhood--and by "disintegration", we actually should read "integration"--with suspicion and hostility, seriously considering a move to join Pepperdine up in Malibu. UCLA, meanwhile, became a hotbed of student activism thanks to a fairly liberal school administration.

Forty years later, though, things have changed: USC has invested heavily in its surrounding neighborhoods, and has come to view its urban location as a major draw. UCLA, thanks to Proposition 209 and the gradual depoliticization of the UC system as a whole, has become increasingly less diverse: enrollment of black students is down to offensive levels, the student government is now controlled by an conservative (and explicitly white) slate, and Westwood is now a bland marketplace of chain stores and dull restaurants. This change, of course, mirrors many larger changes in American politics over the last forty years. Once upon a time, conservative power rested in the Republican "old money" WASP areas of Pasadena and Downtown--USC territory--whereas the largely Jewish and Hollywood-funded Westside was Democratic and liberal--UCLA. That distinction is pretty much gone nowadays, replaced by much more fragmentary and temporary political alliances. UCLA's enclave amongst the ritzy towns of Beverly Hills and Bel-Air increasingly has the feel of a gated community, while USC's urban location allows it to engage with the outside world on an ongoing basis. Obviously there are many complicating factors, and it will take a long time for public perception to catch up. But I think we've only seen the beginning.

Anyways, the one thing this article doesn't talk about it is how central the humanities are to some of these academic and political rivalries. USC has for the past few years been making a point to hire a broad range of very exciting humanistic scholars--just since I came to town, they've hired Judith Halberstam, Josh Kun, Alice Echols, Karen Tongson, and Bruce Smith. More that I'm probably forgetting about, or haven't heard about. UCLA? Not so much. Yeah, they brought in Sue-Ellen Case a few years back, but that was a no-brainer. Can anyone think of any other exciting senior hires? Even if there are some examples, there is nothing like USC's campus-wide commitment to bringing in these amazing humanists who are all on the forefront of their respective fields. These are people who publish a lot, do the actual teaching of their students, attract top grad students, and are genuinely committed to the social mission of an urban university. Top scientists might bring in a lot of research money, but they rarely contribute to the intellectual life of a university as a whole.*

The thing is, developing a talented faculty in the humanities is really cost effective. Let's be honest, we humanists have low expectations when it comes to institutional support, and we work for cheap. A recent New Yorker article points out that when Duke University wanted to raise its academic stature, they realized that for the price of one middling scientist's salary--not to mention all the labs, support staff, etc--they could hire three or four humanistic scholars at the very top of their field. And for Duke, it totally worked--despite that institution's somewhat checkered history, and location away from the usual centers of academe, it is still has one of the great English Lit doctoral programs in the country, and one of the best university presses. This seems to USC's approach, and assuming that they come through with sustained institutional support--not to be taken for granted!--I bet it will work wonders.

In other news, I highly recommend watching all eight minutes of this cartoon version of the Communist Manifesto, assembled from classic Hollywood cartoons. What could be more LA? Via Billtron via Sushi Pajamas.

* I don't say this lightly; my partner was a chemistry major in college. At a small college, the sciences faculty are often integral to the community, and that's a great thing. At a large research university, however, much scientific research takes place in hospitals and institutes far removed from anything that might be considered "education."

** My god! We won! I could care less, but that was kind of cool!


sushipjs said...

Schools like USC, NYU, and Duke (to name a few) can afford to poach other humanities departments. They have large endowments and continue to collect private donations. I have been so distraught by the situation that I actually gave the UCLAlumni Association a donation today. (They always pick game day to beg for money.) With what money it has, it seems the UC system has been investing in not just the hard sciences, but also the social sciences. The prestige of UCSD's poli sci department (one of the best) is completely dependent on poaching. At UCLA, some of these social scientists have been taking part in the intellectual life of the campus. Take geographer and physiologist Jared Diamond of Guns, Germs, and Steel fame. Or, for that matter, consider pedagogical theorist Mike Rose. These are academics that garner an awful lot of interdisciplinary praise and they don't make the campus any money. Meanwhile, in the Biochem and the Molecular Biology departments...

In general, the social sciences and profitless hard sciences get the short shrift on our collective intellectual radars because they are severely lacking in cultural capital. We can never mistake historical or sociological study for pious contemplation on aesthetic coherance. It's really difficult to wax poetic about environmental degradation. Meanwhile, our literature departments continue to fret over the worth of "close reading" (as evidenced by a talk I attended this week).

The problem is rather stark. I think what has to happen is for the UC system to find itself a huge humanities endowment to (finally) compete with the privates. That's the only way intellectual sustainability will happen. Until then, we are cursed to be a degree factory in the abject position of private school envy. So depressing!

BBound said...

Darn social sciences, I always forget about them! Thanks for reminding me.

Re: money, however, my point is that UCLA could easily afford to poach away humanities faculty. It's just a question of priorities. With the exception of the new Broad art center, all of the money from the recent $1 billion fundraising campaign seems to be going towards capital improvements, especially in the sciences. While it's true that the humanities don't make money for the university, they really don't cost much either. One tiny chunk of that fundraising campaign would be enough to create a real initiative to revitalize the intellecutal life of this campus. And frankly, that would probably make it easier to attract scholars from profitable disciplines as well.

Anonymous said...

it would help if we had a humanities dean (and not a stand in)!

BBound said...

Well, this fall, there finally is a permanent dean. You're right, though, that's been a major problem ever since Pauline Yu left. I hear the new guy is pretty good, so I'm vaguely optimistic!

ross said...

I was reading the LA weekly (not sure if this is what got you thinking on the matter or not - if not, check it out!) which has an article on this very subject. One thing they note is the disparity in student spending btwn USC and UCLA (by spending I mean the money a university has per student to invest). UCLA's amount from the state is shockingly low. I often get irritated at the US news rankings because they bias heavily against state institutions which don't have the kinds of economic control privates do. Berkeley has long been an excellent school, but it's never broken the top ten (nor has Michigan or Virginia - also wonderful state programs). Each of these programs (including UCLA) have grad & professional programs in the the top ten but tend to track far lower overall. [this, however, does not mitigate some poor decisions UCLA has made lately] UCLA is finally putting together a working endowment and that's certainly good news. But even a billion dollars is a long way from most. honestly, they need a development VP extraordinaire who can fill the state funding void with donations. (this is ross!)