On the Future of Art History (& the Humanities) Outside the Walls

Last week, Beth and I delivered a paper on the future of higher education at an experimental conference in ScienceSim, an Open Sim virtual world supported by Intel. The conference went off quite well thanks to Shenlei Winkler, its thoughtful and extremely capable organizer. We titled our presentation “The Future of Education: what will open, three-dimensional learning look like?” One of our leitmotifs concerned the pressures faced by universities, some of which are giving away their lectures in the form of video (see Academic Earth, Lecture Fox at Yale, Stanford to Go, etc.) even as tuition is raised to unsustainable levels.

We pointed out that since the 1970s, colleges and universities have produced far more Ph.Ds than the academy could possibly absorb and that because of the greater reliance on adjunct faculty, this trend has continued. In the days since the conference, and quite independently, a discussion thread has developed on the listserv, Consortium of Art and Architectural Historians (CAAH) titled, “On the joys and desperation of art history.” It has been heartrending to hear the struggles of young academics and older, now wiser adjuncts that never did land a tenure-track job. One issue that both the listserv thread and our conference paper have in common are the implications of “Plan B;” the alternate career paths taken out of necessity.

These highly trained professionals have taken jobs in libraries, museums, and other centers of learning beyond the university. At the same time, Web 2.0 technology has created the opportunity for publishing, learning and collaboration anywhere and has empowered these wayward academics. The demographic force of these Ph.D.s coupled with technology, and other pressures is enough to ensure change. Perhaps academia has assured its own creative destruction. Here is my contribution to CAAH:

As nearly everyone has acknowledged, the implications of the trends we are discussing in “On the joys and desperation of art history” are extremely important to the future of our discipline and the humanities as a whole. I want to ask these questions in a slightly different way. What are the implications of a generation of Ph.D.s that find alternate careers in libraries, museums, and other, non-traditional research and teaching environments? Many of the highly trained art historians who work outside of the university will find ways to join together their training and their new careers and they will “teach” and “research” in ways that may not have developed within the academy. We see the education departments of museums now hiring Ph.D.s and being quickly transformed and we see libraries taking on increasingly public roles in research and education (all of this aided by advances in technology). Maybe we should not mourn the loss of the academy of the 20th century but rather focus our collective attention on embracing and supporting this broader universe of scholars.

Perhaps this is too optimistic, but we worry that simply chasing the jobs of the last century will not allow our discipline to survive the next.

Here is the slide show from the conference:

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