Big news in Alberta the other day: the University of Alberta has decided to cut fourteen (14!) programs, in the humanities. That’s on top of a programs cull just two years ago in which seventeen programs – mostly in Arts – were also axed! Oh my God! War on the humanities, etc, etc.
Or at least that’s the way it sounds, until you read the fine print around the announcement and realise that these fourteen programs, collectively, have 30 students enrolled in them. The puzzle here, it seems, is not so much “why are these programs being cancelled” as “why on earth were they ever approved in the first place”?
For the record, here are the programs being axed: Majors programs in Latin American studies, Scandinavian studies, honours programs in classical languages, creative writing, history/classics (combined) religious studies, women and gender studies, comparative literature, French, math (that is, a BA Hon in math – which is completely separate from the BSc in Math, which is going nowhere), and also Scandinavian studies (again). And technically, they are not being axed, but rather “suspending admissions”, which means that current students will be able to finish their degrees.
Two takeaways from this:
The first is that the term “programs” is a very odd and sometimes misunderstood one. Universities can get rid of programs without affecting a single job, without even reducing a single course offerings. In the smorgasboard world of North American universities, all programs are essentially virtual. The infrastructure of a university is essentially the panoply of courses offered by departments. Academic entrepreneurs can then choose to bundle certain configurations of courses into “programs” (with the approval of a lot of committees and Senate of course). Of course, programs need co-ordinators and a co-ordinators get stipends and more importantly a small bump in prestige. But overall, programs are very close to costless because departments are absorbing all the costs of delivering the actual courses. (The real costs are actually the ludicrous amount of programming time involved in getting registrarial software to recognize all these different degree pathway requirements).
It doesn’t actually have to be this way. Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Science only has about fifty degree programs; pretty much every mid-size Canadian university has twice that. And there’s no obvious benefit to students in this degree of specialization. What’s the advantage of this? Why, apart from inertia and a desire not to rock the boat, do we put up with this?
A second point, though. Readers may well ask “why do these kinds of program cuts always affect the humanities more than any other faculty”. This is a good question. And the answer is: because no other faculty hacks itself into ever-tinier pieces the way humanities does. Seriously. This isn’t a question of specialization – every field has that – it’s a question of whether or not to create academic structures and bureaucracies to parallel every specialization.
Imagine, for instance, what biology would look like if it were run like humanities. You’d probably have separate degrees and program co-ordinators for epigenetics, ichnology, bioclimatology, cryobiology, limnology, morphology – the potential list goes on and on. But of course biology doesn’t do that, because biology is not ridiculous. Humanities, on the other hand…
There are lots of good histories of the humanities out there (I recommend Rens Bod’s A New History of the Humanities and James Turner’s Philology: the Origins of the Modern Humanities), but as far as I know no one has ever really looked in a historical way as to why humanities, alone among branches of the academy, chose to Balkanize itself administratively in such an odd way. For a set of disciplines which constantly worries about being under attack, you’d think that grouping together in larger units would be an obvious defence posture. Why not just have big programs in philosophy, languages and literature and philology/history and be done with it?