A spur to mules and poor linguists

Arts and Humanities in Higher Education
October 22, 2004

This journal has two target audiences: the shell-shocked humanities specialists who cannot understand why their stock has fallen so much in the past 30 years and the probably uninterested university managers who have given up on the humanities. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education aims to promote greater interest and confidence in the humanities.

Publication began in 2002, ten years after the formation of the Humanities Higher Education Research Group at the Open University. The journal's contributors are a diverse group of scholars who have been collecting ideas and experiments in education as the situation has worsened for the humanities. Since there are no teacher training schools for higher education as there are for primary and secondary education - PhD programmes have implicitly filled the role - the journal's editor is clearly on to something. She realises that humanities teachers need ways to reflect on teaching and to strike a balance between teaching and research. The opening editorial by Ellie Chambers (the editor) Jan Parker and Marshall Gregory in the first issue makes this clear.

The journal could be the harbinger of an important shift towards emphasising teaching. It may convince and even inspire the humanists to get their house in order and show the bureaucrats that humanities specialists have the resolve to reclaim their position at the centre of university education. The problems it seeks to address are theoretical and practical, although solving the practical problems is way beyond its power. But the fact that such a journal has been started and has now produced three solid volumes of diverse articles suggests that the humanities are moving out of the doldrums. This return of optimism is a good thing, since the modern humanities were fuelled by the optimistic belief that education was the most important means to change humans for the good.

The articles address university administrators and professors all over the English-speaking world, from the UK to Australia to North America. Many of the contributors seem aware that politicians in these countries have given up on the ability of humanities teachers to govern themselves. Politicians in the US have therefore instituted punitive tests, such as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, to enforce what they fear teachers do not have the moral authority to encourage.

As someone professionally concerned with the health of the humanities I like to see their general problems addressed at thetheoretical and the historical level. So does the journal, but it also encourages something entirely different, by mixing in contributions about the concrete realities of teaching. In all issues of the journal, various scholars explore practical problems from different angles. For example, "transition" problems: how is a teacher to get students - who are not as well prepared for higher education today as they were 50 years ago - to settle down, to learn to work and not to despair because they have difficulties in writing or reading?

There is one very general article in each issue, but most articles tackle a problem by reference to specific cases. Perhaps in the past humanities teachers in universities thought that dealing with the nitty-gritty of student ignorance and recalcitrance was beneath their dignity; perhaps now the crisis in the humanities has made it clear that the hard work of grappling with student needs is part of what it takes to be a professor.

Another subject, to which the journal has devoted a loose series of essays, is what the editors call "writing in the disciplines". Parker explains the value of an experiment at Cornell University, in the US, in encouraging students to write, and of applying it elsewhere. Some contributors dare to confront the most primitive problems of writing for humanities classes - one example is Gerald Graff's lively article on what to do about the student who balks at analysing a work of art just like a stubborn mule asked to carry a load up a hill.

Foreign-language teaching is another issue tackled. As well as dealing with specific cases, such as the changing fortunes of Italian teaching in Australia, the articles make clear how the decline of language study in universities in the English-speaking world has removed a key tool in educating the young. While those who do not know English long to learn it, for those who do know it, learning a language other than English is just not sexy any more. The contributors do not solve the problem of how to reconfigure humanities teaching for students who do not know the relevant foreign languages, but they make it clear that the vacuum created by the decline is having a big effect.

What is most valuable in this journal is its focus on the role of the teacher in higher education. Perhaps it will help to shift attention away from mere professional competence to something more like the pursuit of wisdom.

Lindsay Waters is executive editor for the humanities, Harvard University Press.

Arts and Humanities in Higher Education: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice

Editor - Ellie Chambers
Publisher - Sage
Pages - Triannual
Price - Institutions £225.00; Individuals £38.00
ISSN - 1474 0222

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