Strangers on a Train

A chance encounter provides a lesson in complicity and the never-ending crisis in the humanities.
By Cathy N. Davidson

Early on in my first tenure-track job at Michigan State University, in the late 1970s, I happened to be riding the same train from Lansing, Michigan, to Chicago as the department chair who hired me, Alan Hollingsworth, who had since become dean of our College of Arts and Sciences. It had taken me three years to land a tenure-track position, and I was a second-round pick at that, after the original candidate failed to pan out. According to Modern Language Association statistics, it was the worst time for new PhDs (until the present one). It was the tail end of a baby boom, with too few students coming in to undergraduate colleges and universities and too many overblown humanities programs continuing to churn out new PhDs as if the demographics had never changed. There were more than six hundred applications for my job, and I felt like I was hanging on to the profession by my fingernails. And there was my chair-turned-dean standing over me, nodding to an empty seat and asking, “Is this seat free?” I thought about the five-hour ride from Lansing to Chicago as I moved my book bag and tried to make it seem sincere when I smiled and replied, “Of course! Please join me.”

It was one of those “strangers on a train” encounters that changes you forever, in this case in a good way. For those familiar with Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 detective novel of that name, I hasten to assure you that no one was murdered in my untenured-prof-trapped-with-dean-in-a-railway-car version of noir.

Al Hollingsworth passed away in 1991, but I’ve never forgotten that train ride. I still keep close two lessons from it. The first unforgettable moment was Al ranting (he liked high rhetorical mode) that he was sick of humanists complaining about the “crisis in the humanities” and not doing anything about it. He was convinced that if humanists were more assertive about their value to society and created programs that underscored that value, theirs would be among the highest-stature fields in academe. “Everyone knows the big three of learning are reading, writing, and arithmetic—and English departments have their stake in two out of three. But English department meetings are spent trying to dump reading and writing programs and are devoted to battles over who will hire the second Victorianist or medievalist or some other subfield where enrollment is already negligible. Then they wonder why deans want to cut their positions.”

That’s a rough reconstruction from memory many years later, but you get the drift. Al was sure that the humanities had become hyperspecialized to ape the hyperspecialization of the sciences and had abandoned creative writing and rhetoric, defining them as peripheral, low-status programs rather than championing them. He also believed critical thinking, historical perspective, languages and linguistics, and other components of cross-cultural literacy (though he would have used a different term in the late 1970s) should be trumpeted by every humanist as necessities in the complex world. In addition, he valued the “real-world” humanistic skills of being able to analyze the meaning of complicated texts and synthesize abstract or theoretical information from multiple (even contradictory) sources.

Al believed humanities teachers should present our mission as career preparation, even job training, for undergraduates. Instead, we fueled the crisis by our emphasis on preparing students for graduate schools that were already pumping out far too many graduates. Ninety percent of the battles within the humanities faced inward, like the disputes between Englishers and Americanists in English departments and the vicious wars between different theoretical schools that few outside the humanities understood. No one was attending to the real dynamics, dimensions, and demographics of the “crisis in the humanities.”

I didn’t agree with all of his positions, but most of what he said made sense then and makes sense now. If you look at the curriculum in most humanities departments, you would barely notice that there is a crisis and there has been one for decades. At most colleges and universities, humanities departments continue to have a hierarchy of requirements and teaching assignments that imply that the department’s chief mission is to train students for professional careers in the humanities. Most humanities departments do not seem designed to prepare students for any and all careers, including in the sciences, even though all careers require reading, writing, critical thinking, theoretical analysis, historical perspective, and cross-cultural knowledge.

Al’s comments resonated on that train ride partly because I was in hot water at the time. As a new assistant professor, I was, of course, relegated to teaching first-year composition. I was already running afoul of our university writing program directors by emphasizing “real” writing instead of the “research paper,” that strange collegiate form of writing—I call it “researchese”—that one rarely uses outside of college or graduate school and that, if one succeeds as a humanities scholar, editors later attempt to eradicate. The final assignment I gave my expository writing students was to write their own résumés and job letters for dream internships. Other students in the class read the letters and gave feedback, and then the students sent off the letters for real internships or summer employers and reported back the results. This was Michigan, with the auto industry tanking. I felt it was important to help my students, many first-generation college students, in the formidable task of finding jobs. The director of our program reprimanded me more than once for deviating from the prescribed syllabus of first-year comp. What Al said on that train that day spoke to me then and continues to now.

The Humanities' Contribution to the Crisis

The second “strangers on a train” moment came with a question Al asked a few hours into the trip. “Tell me, what do people think about my deanship?” he asked. “What do you think?” I gave him my sense of what people liked and what they didn’t, what I liked and what I didn’t.

I was too naive back then and too foolhardy to realize he had been testing me.

“You’re being more candid than most academics would be when talking to a dean,” he warned. “Most academics pretend they stand up to administrators, they bluster and posture about ‘I told him thus and so,’ but, in my office, with the door closed and no one else around, they usually tell me what they think I want to hear. Then they go back to their friends and go on and on about how ‘these administrators never listen.’ They rarely acknowledge their own complicity.” I must admit that I was surprised at that statement, and I was even more taken aback when he warned that I needed to think about my own career and whether I wanted to continue to speak candidly to my academic superiors. He wasn’t telling me not to, only to be aware when I did that most people do not. “Never forget you are doing it at your own risk,” he said, or something like that. I’ve chosen most of my career to take the risks, but, whenever I do, I remember those long-ago words of caution.

I repeat them now because I’m about to take a risk. And the risk here (I now have tenure) is that my words will be misread. So this is just a reminder that I’ve spent a career talking back to the status quo. In this case, the status quo is twofold: first, administrators who hack away at humanities programs in order to make a budget; and second, humanities departments that have still not gotten the message that we could and would be central to higher education if we took our role in society and as educators more seriously. In other words, there is something in the prescriptions that follow that should offend just about everyone. If you don’t want to be offended, stop reading now.

Here’s the sequence:

NUMBER 1: Unfair, thoughtless, and sometimes downright ineffectual and stupid cutbacks are being made to humanities programs around the country and abroad. Programs are being cut, often without a plan or consensus and often without reason, strategy, or clear thinking. Any administrator, anywhere, who lops off this or that humanities program or funding stream without a comprehensive plan or logical justification is pursuing the neoliberal policy of scapegoating. He or she places the burden of a large failure in education funding on the least accountable, least powerful, and often even least financially significant parties. Taking cost cuts out of the hide of the humanities breeds greater and greater inequality but does not solve the problem. In fact, it rarely saves more than a pittance, and its symbolism merely justifies power imbalances and the status quo without rectifying the underlying structural problems that led to a deficit in the first place. It has been demonstrated many times (most notably by Christopher Newfield) that when salary, buildings, labs, and technology costs are factored into the equation, humanities programs typically turn out to be cost-effective, especially at tuition-driven institutions. Cutting them without an overall plan for the entire university is classic bad management, start to finish.

NUMBER 2: Nevertheless, some humanities programs deserve to be cut or closed, and just about every humanities program needs to rethink its role in educating students in the information age. Every survey of employers says students graduating today, in any field, lack skills that humanists should be claiming as our mission to teach. If we are fulfilling our mission, saving the liberal arts should be a top priority for any thoughtful, wise university planning commission. (See number one above about feckless and unwise administrators.) Many non-humanities programs are in the same boat; they aren’t rethinking their missions either, but because that isn’t what this forum is about, I’m not going to address that larger issue of university failure here. Our focus is the crisis in the humanities, and I’m sick of having had to address that crisis every year, year in and year out, for my entire career. Until we admit our complicity, we don’t even have a chance of addressing the crisis.

NUMBER 3: My own opinion is that only some portion of any humanities program should be devoted to preparing potential professional humanists. Producing PhDs trained to produce PhDs is, like all inbreeding, a way to guarantee decline and eventual extinction. Most students attend college because they are on a journey to independent adulthood. Translation: they need jobs, a career, a way to support themselves. Whether you are a vulgar Marxist or a raging capitalist, you have to support yourself somehow, and you have to do so in a given historical moment and cultural context. This particular historical moment, with all of its glaring inequalities, is terrible for anyone trying to be a self-sustaining adult in the United States. No one envies the twenty-two-year-old facing the job market. Students have a right to a college education that helps prepare them for an economically challenging, complex, global, fast-paced, Internet-driven future. Right now, for-profit colleges are subsidized to the tune of billions of dollars a year from taxpayer-supported Pell Grants, according to statistics from the Department of Education. Some for-profits have graduation rates as low as 25 percent. Yet they appeal to students because they promise job training. At the same time, most legitimate nonprofit colleges and universities boast loftier, and to my mind, indefensible, goals. Over a million students this year are turning to for-profit institutions, many of them out of despair at the lack of alternatives. We educators must change our focus. For our sake, for the sake of students, why not have humanists lead a necessary transformation throughout the entire university?

NUMBER 4: Al Hollingsworth was right that the world wants good readers and good writers, and that these are fundamental, foundational, indispensable job skills. Any survey of employers ranks reading and writing as the skills most coveted and most often lacking in new employees. Other missing skills include collaborative abilities, abilities to translate complex and incommensurate information into conclusions, critical thinking, persuasive skills, and project-management skills, plus global awareness and an understanding of culture and context for facilitating interactions in distributed, globalized workplaces. Sounds pretty “soft” (as scientists like to say). Sounds pretty humanistic. Instead of declining, our undergraduate enrollments should be soaring. If they are not in your department, you are missing the boat. I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it. We are living in the information age, for Pete’s sake. If humanists can’t make what we do central in an information age, we never can. Still, most humanities departments act as if the Internet had not yet been invented. As I noted on my blog at, the information age without the humanities is like the industrial age without the steam engine. But few humanities departments could pass the essential litmus test to make that a concrete analogy rather than just a witticism.

NUMBER 5: Al was wrong about one thing. He said humanities departments could, if they had the will, lay claim to only two of the three foundational human skills—reading and writing. I believe we can lay claim to the third, arithmetic, now too. Given the importance of digital humanities, and all the ways the digitization of texts has an impact on our lives, given ways that data scraping and mining and extracting and analyzing can help us understand information flows now and in the past, we could be teaching students not only how to extract data but also how to analyze, interpret, and apply it in meaningful, paradigm-changing ways. Humanists have to get past the tired binary of “qualitative” and “quantitative” thinking—the former so often dismissed by number-crunchers as a “soft” skill and the latter so often dismissed by humanists as “positivism.”

To reimagine a global humanism with relevance to the contemporary world means understanding, using, and contributing to new computational tools and methods. There are many fascinating examples of digital humanities projects that use newly digitized resources to change our often Eurocentric ideas of human interactions and contributions. Even a few examples show how being open to digital possibilities changes paradigms and brings new ways of reimagining the humanities into the world. Mappamundi, a digital and web-based initiative that studies the global Middle Ages, is a partnership of medievalists and supercomputer scientists from Texas to Istanbul to Hangchow and even Timbuktu. Together, humanists, computer scientists, and engineers are building a virtual world where avatars can tour an ancient city, hear its music, walk around its architecture, read its texts, and see its carvings and statuary. The project requires global, cross-disciplinary partnerships that break boundaries and help students collaborate on project management and technical training along with new, multilingual, multinational, multireligious humanistic paradigms (“medieval” no longer implies “Christian” in the Mappamundi project).

Similarly, the Law in Slavery and Freedom Project brings together a worldwide cohort of faculty and students, often in seminars taught simultaneously with research collaborators at the University of Michigan and in Brazil, Canada, Cuba, France, Germany, and Senegal. In some classes, students mine local archives, create new databases, and exchange information and ideas to help inform our understanding of the institutions of slavery, abolitionism, and emancipation while, again, using interpretive and narrative skills once seen as outside the purview of the humanities. Last year, at my own university, the Haiti Lab in Duke’s John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute analyzed more than a hundred years of computerized ship records to prove that the recent Haitian cholera epidemic must have been imported from outside the country in the wake of the devastating 2009 earthquake. Crunching all the data now available in digitized records, the Haiti Lab participants (historians, literary scholars, computer scientists, visualization experts, and global health practitioners) proved that Haiti never before suffered from cholera even though other Caribbean countries did. This research helped inform the Centers for Disease Control’s response to the outbreak. Numbers matter to the humanities. Humanistic interpretive skills matter to a data-rich world. The world needs skillful, critical, creative interpreters of data now being produced at the click of a mouse: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Together again, at last. The humanities need to claim all three.

NUMBER 6: So what does this all add up to? A crisis, yes, but one that needs to be addressed (a) by protesting administrative stupidity (see number one above) and (b) by employing an equal amount of introspective activism about what we do, for whom we do it, and how we contribute to our own precarious state within the larger university. If I am a student already facing economic crisis, do I want to specialize in a discipline synonymous with “crisis”? We humanists need to change our mission and forever disown our self-defeating posturing.

C. P. Snow wrote about the “two cultures” in 1959. Looking backward thirty years, he noted that the two cultures came about largely because of the stature of the humanities being “on the decline,” while science was on the rise. Really. We’re eighty-two years old and still feeling one down? Enough. Acknowledge the crisis, but also acknowledge that the two-cultures argument is a product of the industrial era. So is overspecialization. We live in a new era, where work and life are blended, where multimedia arts are part of science, where computation is sociality, where Eurocentrism is outmoded, and where globalization touches us all. We have a new opportunity and, fifteen years into the commercialization of the Internet, now is just about the right time to be reforming institutions. Industrial Taylorism transformed the institution of the medieval university into the modern research university in which the humanities and the liberal arts more generally were already being rendered structurally and conceptually peripheral to “real,” specialized advanced training.

We now live in an age that requires synthesis and reconnection across isolated and overly specialized fields throughout the university (by no means just in the humanities). If the university is in intellectual crisis (in addition to economic crisis), it is the consequence of a mismatch between the educational needs of our era and the antiquated design of our educational systems. In short, we need a wholesale reconceptualization and transformation of the industrial-age university for a global, interactive, interdisciplinary digital age. The humanities have the skills to put the present university in historical perspective and to lead its reformation, to turn a crisis into an opportunity. First we must acknowledge our complicity in the current crisis. Until we acknowledge our complicity, we will change nothing—but others will change us, whether we like it or not. There seems to be no third alternative in this version of the “crisis in the humanities.”

NUMBER 7: I don’t like finger-wagging, and I’ve done a lot in this piece. So I will end by pointing toward one modest program we’re exploring at Duke University to create a prototype of what a new and essential humanities for a digital age might look like. In December 2009, David Bell, senior associate dean of the graduate school, asked me to gather together faculty to brainstorm ideas. We did this in an open fashion by posting ideas online, on a Commentpress blog, and holding open forums. We compiled about three hundred responses into a program that we turned this way and that to come up with what is, at the time of this publication, still a proposed draft (making its way now through various committees) for what will probably be a master’s degree, a “bachelor’s plus,” or a “PhD plus” (or all three) in what we are currently calling “knowledge networks.” Whatever specific institutional or degree form this takes, the new program’s hallmarks are deep critical thinking about the information age, about how concepts and ideologies change in response to technology, about historical process and critical thinking, combined with new modes of assessment and data analysis, technology training and requirements, peer learning, project management, and real-world application in year-long internships. It’s only one version and, as I’ve said, it’s still being drafted, but we hope to have students participate in this new program in fall 2013.

A program in knowledge networks is hardly a full solution, but it crosses some new boundaries and might offer ideas to other humanities faculty. I, for one, would much rather set a new standard for our profession than let ourselves be dismembered by those whose motives might be unsavory or even deadly to the goals of productive, creative, intellectual, social, and economic futures—our students’ and our own.

Highsmith, Complicity, and and Crisis

Now back to those strangers on a train. In Patricia Highsmith’s brilliant, grim tale of complicity, the architect Guy Haines encounters a stranger, Charles Anthony Bruno, a playboy and sociopath, and they exchange secrets: Haines would love to divorce his unfaithful wife and marry the woman he loves; Bruno would like to kill his father and inherit his fortune. Bruno suggests the two make a pact to each murder the inconvenient person in the other’s life. Because they met randomly, neither will have a motive. Theirs will be the perfect set of crimes, and they can then go off independently and unencumbered to lead happy lives.

Complicity never quite works so easily. Haines sees the scheme as a fantasy until he returns from a trip to find his wife murdered. He knows Bruno did the deed but is afraid to go to the police for fear that he will be implicated and charged as an accessory in a conspiracy to kill his wife. He is consumed by guilt, of course, and also fear. Bruno keeps turning up at inconvenient times and places (such as at Haines’s wedding), and, this being a noir mystery, a detective sleuths about trying to figure it all out. In the process, Haines finds himself more and more in thrall to Bruno, more and more powerless to lead an independent life. Haines can scarcely believe the person he has become because of that one brief encounter, because of his own cowardice and complicity.

As Highsmith knew, that’s how complicity works. Once you give up your independent judgment to another, it’s hard ever again to live free and clear of the desires of the person you most fear—or to be able to fulfill your own.
I’m not being entirely glib when I say the “crisis in the humanities” is a bit like an arranged murder interlaced with the complicities of all parties, and no one is completely innocent. It’s a terrible cycle. We have to break it. As humanists, we need to find our independent way and lead higher education, not simply follow in its own self-destruction and our own.

Right now, virtually all nonprofit higher education is institutionalized for the swiftly departing industrial age. It needs to be reformed, at every level and in all fields, for the digital future. Why can’t humanists lead the way instead of wringing our hands over how we are being mistreated by those whose values we probably find questionable in the first place? Educational and institutional leadership must begin with the radical reformation of our own disciplines and our own mission. If we do it right, we will have the public on our side because most people outside of academe are all too painfully aware that education (kindergarten through college) is not yet fulfilling its obligations to this new age. Students would not be turning to for-profit institutions if we were doing our jobs.
Higher education today is training students for the twentieth century, not for the one in which we live. The humanities could bring higher education into the twenty-first century. We need to find our independent way to our own radical reformation, and then we need to start on the rest of the university too. There is no other choice. We must reform ourselves before we are deformed by more powerful forces (those administrators!) into beings that we can scarcely recognize as ourselves.

Cathy N. Davidson holds distinguished chairs in English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University; is cofounder of the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC); and codirects the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition. She is a member of the National Council on the Humanities, and her most recent book is Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.