Cogut Institute for the Humanities

2. The Humanities in the Time of COVID-19

Amanda Anderson and Jonathan Kramnick (Yale University) talk about the challenges facing the humanities during COVID-19, the job market crisis for doctoral students, the role of the humanities in and beyond the pandemic, and the broader landscape of knowledge production across the disciplines of the modern university.

Episode Transcript

Amanda Anderson: From the Cogut Institute for the Humanities at Brown University, this is Meeting Street. On today’s show, we will talk about the humanities in the time of COVID-19. The economic crisis attending our current public health crisis has hit universities with particular force. And one question looming is, what sort of effect or disproportionate effect this might have on the humanities. My guest today is Jonathan Kramnick, the Maynard Mack Professor of English at Yale University. He has written a series of articles for The Chronicle of Higher Education that address the acute challenges facing the humanities and particularly doctoral students in the humanities. His own scholarly research and teaching focuses on 18th-century literature, philosophy and literature, and cognitive science and the arts. He has also written on knowledge production in and across the disciplines of the modern university. Jonathan, welcome to Meeting Street.

Jonathan Kramnick: Thanks, Amanda. It’s great to be here.

Amanda Anderson: So in July of this year you published a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “The Humanities After COVID-19” in which you discuss how dramatically the pandemic has intensified an already urgent crisis affecting the job market for humanities Ph.D.s. What worries you most about this extreme crisis in hiring?

Jonathan Kramnick: Well, I think what worries me most is, first and foremost, the human cost for job candidates, graduate students and recent Ph.D.s in particular. We’ve been at the sharp edge of a job crisis in the humanities for a long time now, and things will undoubtedly get much, much worse this year and next year and perhaps even for a longer period of time. But also at the same time, I am worried, and I think we all should be worried, about the long-term consequences for the disciplines of the humanities when an entire generation perhaps doesn’t get hired and when there’s just such a sharp disruption in the ordinary processes of bringing up the next generation of scholars through the ranks.

Amanda Anderson: One question I have for you with respect to that is, there’s certainly been a lot of talk over the past several years about the need to reform the way that we look at doctoral education and its aims, stressing the importance of training students for careers beyond academia or recommending that we change the very structure of the dissertation to accommodate a broader conception of scholarly writing. What do you think of this development in relation to the problem that you just invoked, which is the problem of recent Ph.D.s not being able to find jobs within academia?

Jonathan Kramnick: Well, I think we’re likely to hear much more of that kind of talk now because of the effects of COVID-19 on hiring and higher education. And I think that’s, you know, understandable, and there are a lot of good reasons for it. At the same time, I think we need to recognize that alternative academia or jobs outside of the ordinary tenure track stream only provide so much of a solution for the job crisis either near or long term. First of all, in the short term, those kinds of hiring possibilities outside of the academy are going to be under the exact same pressure as universities themselves, so there will be job crises in publishing and in museums and libraries and so forth. Secondly, and I think this is something that we need to really think hard about, there is not a clear relationship between training for jobs outside of the academy and the kind of skill set that we develop and teach to and learn from our students with. So it’s arguably the case, I think, that those jobs really are not the obvious and logical outcome of getting a Ph.D. or advanced degree in the humanities, and we need to sort of just face that fact. And that there’s perhaps no reason to go to graduate school or to get a Ph.D. if you want to work in those fields.

Amanda Anderson: I think that’s a very important point. I think some people would counter that the fields, the academic fields themselves, need to change, that they need to incorporate forms of knowledge that are closer to the forms of knowledge that we find outside of academia. What would you say to that?

Jonathan Kramnick: Well, I think, again, there’s something to that. And I think that at this point exploring all and every option that might provide jobs for graduate students is a good and necessary thing, so I’m not at all opposed to investigating plausible connections and routes from the kind of work that one does in a Ph.D. program and jobs outside of academia or jobs outside of the tenure track stream of academia — say, in university administration, for example. Again, there doesn’t seem to me any clear link between the work that goes on in departments or in academic disciplines, even if you reform them, and those kinds of jobs. Plus, those kinds of jobs have their own streams of hiring, their own expectations and norms and paths, which have traditionally not included graduate programs. So it seems unlikely to me this is going to solve some of the deep problems in the humanities or in the university at large — a very, you know, wide-ranging and pervasive employment crisis.

Amanda Anderson: In your work you also address what we might broadly call debates in the humanities, which is to say debates about what makes the humanities or certain disciplines within the humanities distinctive or important. Your own field is literary studies. What makes literary studies distinctive as a discipline within the broad array of academic disciplines?

Jonathan Kramnick: I think what’s distinctive about literary studies is that it’s an interpretive discipline that looks closely at language. In that way, I think that is what makes it unique and special: that it involves a particular kind of skill in working with the written word, and that skill is attached to questions of interpretation that provide a special purchase on questions that other disciplines care deeply about or that anyone might have.

Amanda Anderson: So you didn’t use the word “literature.” You talked about “language.” I’m just curious, does it have a special object of study within the broader sphere of language, and how would you define that object?

Jonathan Kramnick: Yes, I am interested in the medium question of literature and the relationship between the skills that literary scholars have and the kind of truth claims they make, and the meeting up of their own language and language that’s out there in the world. So actually I think the medium is important. However, yes, literary studies is a discipline that takes literature as its object. I have no problems with that at all, and I think that’s quite important. I would also add to that, however, that what we call literature is open for debate, revision, is a fairly capacious category, and so on.

Amanda Anderson: Thank you. Now, is there anything specific to be claimed for the humanities, more generally, which would, of course, include other disciplines besides literary studies, such as history, art history, or philosophy?

Jonathan Kramnick: Sure, and I think we’ve all had to think a lot about that recently. And for me I think what it often comes down to is that the humanities study or describe the domain of value — beauty, truth, meaning — those sorts of things or categories or properties of the world. But it’s a domain that forms or studies values that make things like saving lives worth doing. And I think other disciplines don’t do that exactly.

Amanda Anderson: That’s interesting. You know, many people also point to the importance of the humanities with respect to a focus on lived experience. Would you say that that’s integrated in your conception of its focus on value, or is that a slightly different dimension of the importance of the humanities, or how would you respond to that?

Jonathan Kramnick: I think you can’t get around lived experience. I think that is vital to the humanities, but I think also other units of the university examine different dimensions of something that we might call lived experience.

Amanda Anderson: Could you give an example of that?

Jonathan Kramnick: Psychology, for example ... Neuroscience ... They come at the question of consciousness, lived experience, the transaction that humans and other animals make with the world from their own disciplinary vantage. And I think that that’s distinct from the way that humanists do. So I think the lived experience and all of its, you know, richness and ethical entailments is something that the humanities looks at in its own particular way through its own particular methods. But it’s not the sole property of humanistic disciplines.

Amanda Anderson: Yeah, I think partly what you’re describing when you refer to lived experience and other units of the university taking that up, you’re referring to the larger rubric of the human sciences. Because of course the social sciences always were interested in lived experience.

Jonathan Kramnick: Right. Exactly.

Amanda Anderson: You know, which is actually the point you’re making. Now some common defenses of the humanities claim that the humanities help to promote capacity for empathy or broad ethical sensitivity. Do you agree with that? Do you think that’s an accurate way to describe one value that the humanities brings to the table?

Jonathan Kramnick: Perhaps … I mean, I think, perhaps ultimately that’s an empirical question, right? Like, do in fact humanistic disciplines impart greater ethical sensitivity to their students? Maybe. You know, I certainly like to think that they do. I’m not sure, to sort of return to the discussion we were just having a moment ago, whether that couldn’t also be said for other units of the university as well, and whether that’s the sole property of the humanities. Perhaps. It’s an old argument going back to the mid-century really, that what the humanities do is they kind of create citizens, and certainly at this moment in time, we all could use a bit more of that, and I wouldn’t want to dismiss that argument or say it’s just cliched or something. I think there’s a lot to it, but I think both that it’s an interesting open, empirical question of whether or not that’s the case, and also that I’m not sure it’s the sole property of the humanities as a unit of the university. Could be that what the humanities do there is necessary for the broader project of the university. I think I probably stand behind that claim. But whether or not we are the only people to do it is something that I’m not sure that I would ultimately stand behind.

Amanda Anderson: Yeah, I really appreciate your making that point because I’ve often wondered, you know, with respect to some of the central claims made about the humanities, what people in other divisions of the university would say in response. Would they cede that whole area and say, “You’re right. We don’t ever talk about values or ethics”? Would they say, “You’re right. You do critical thinking. We don’t do critical thinking”? [Jonathan Kramnick: Right] It seems to me that you’re making a really important point, and that it would be of great value actually to have more conversations across the departments on precisely these questions.

Jonathan Kramnick: Yes, I agree entirely.

Amanda Anderson: Now speaking of conversations across departments, strikingly, you have been quite critical of interdisciplinarity. Tell us what sorts of problems you see in certain approaches to interdisciplinarity in the modern university.

Jonathan Kramnick: Right. I mean, I think that’s the important part. I’ve been critical of certain approaches to interdisciplinarity in the modern university and somewhat of a champion of other approaches to interdisciplinarity in the modern university. What I’ve been critical of is a kind of reductive interdisciplinarity that doesn’t respect the particular methods and objects of the individual disciplines from which any interdisciplinary project is composed, that tries to flatten, say, the humanities to the social sciences, and then maybe the social sciences to the sciences — a kind of model of vertical integration, as it’s called. And I have attempted to advocate for something more horizontal and ultimately pluralist in its orientation and shape, which is to say that interdisciplinarity should be a kind of collaborative project based upon mutual respect between and among disciplines that have separate objects and separate methods, but that might share a common interest in a phenomenon or a question or a project or something like that.

Amanda Anderson: Can you give an example of a case in which you see this problematic form of vertical integration manifesting itself?

Jonathan Kramnick: Well, a long time ago I was interested in the application of the evolutionary social sciences, and evolutionary psychology in particular, to the humanistic disciplines and an attempt to kind of ground and flatten the humanities by appealing to what I thought was a fairly crude model of the evolved mind. That was maybe a decade or so ago, and I was involved in some pretty intense debates about that sort of stuff. I think one sees a lot less of that these days. I think one sees more of a kind of interdisciplinarity that’s based upon digital methods perhaps, a kind of, you know, interest in information and data as the common object across and between disciplines. Also a general problem orientation to major crises in the world. And again, it’s hard not to feel really drawn to this and not to feel like this is urgent. Universities are, for reasons that you went into at the beginning of our discussion, in a crisis mode in terms of their own resources. Universities are also now more sensitive than ever to their place in the world, so it makes perfect sense that they would want to bundle resources and attach them to urgent problems, COVID-19 being one of them, but also racism, global warming, things like that, which all of us care deeply about and want to help solve. But nevertheless, the underlying model in which, under conditions of scarcity, we sort of assume that there’s a common object and a common method across different units of the university and we should bundle them all together and identify, say, hiring and seminars and so forth, under a kind of loose rubric I think is something that has deep epistemic problems to it.

Amanda Anderson: Yeah, I think something that you’re also capturing here is the importance for intellectual inquiry of a non-instrumental approach or at least, you know, the possibility of inquiry that is not driven instrumentally.

Jonathan Kramnick: Yes.

Amanda Anderson: And I, you know, I’m wondering — I mean, do you think that the sciences also experience the same sort of pressure? Do you think it’s affected, you know, divisions of the university other than the humanities?

Jonathan Kramnick: Oh, absolutely. I mean, from what I hear from my colleagues in the sciences, that’s absolutely the case: the kind of attention paid to applied science rather than pure science and, in the extreme, you might say a kind of reduction of science to engineering, so that, you know, it’s less just research into questions that might be of interest and more application into solving and addressing this particular problem.

Amanda Anderson: Is there anything important that the humanities can learn from the sciences in terms of method or reflection on method?

Jonathan Kramnick: Oh, absolutely. First and foremost, I believe that, you know, we can learn or we can take on board the notion that we’re in the game of knowledge and therefore of truth and that our objects of study push back and limit what we can say about them, and that that entails a kind of epistemic humility. That sort of ethos, I think, you know, perhaps comes more naturally to the sciences, which is, after all, a kind of slow, deliberate empirical process often based upon teamwork, whereas some versions of the humanities — you know, what we do is much more kind of like, you know, solitary, trailblazing, heroic work, just redefining something and coming up with our own version of it or something like that. So I’ve been very interested recently in the structure of truth claims in literary studies: how they work, what kind of methods they’re attached to, what is the epistemology of close reading — those kinds of questions.

Amanda Anderson: That’s wonderful, because I’ve often thought that it’s quite important for humanists to lay claim to their distinctive practices of knowledge production.

Jonathan Kramnick: Yeah.

Amanda Anderson: I’m always a little disturbed when literature classes don’t have a final exam.

Jonathan Kramnick: [laughter]

Amanda Anderson: Because I feel that, you know, it’s very important to make sure that we’re conveying how important the knowledge that we’ve sought to learn in that particular class.

Jonathan Kramnick: Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, there’s knowledge, like of the sort of, you know, what years were Jane Austen’s novels published and, you know, who does Elizabeth Bennet marry, and those kinds of questions. And there’s also the kind of knowledge that’s embedded in the practice that literary critics do all the time when they interpret works of literature, close reading predominantly. So I have become very interested, too, in a way that close reading is a method and therefore has an implied epistemology and therefore makes truth claims, and that’s to thread back to our earlier discussion about the medium specificity of literature. I think this has a lot to do with the way that literary critical language actually matches up with the language of a work of literature. And the way that close reading, which is actually really a form of writing rather than reading, is a kind of skilled practice and therefore has an epistemology and therefore makes truth claims, looking closely at strategies of quotation in particular.

Amanda Anderson: So quotation as a kind of evidence.

Jonathan Kramnick: Yes, quotation as also a skilled practice. Quotation as a skilled practice that involves matching your own syntax and grammar with the words that you bring into your sentence. So I’ve been particularly interested in what I call “in-sentence quotation” where you ... you know, what we often call “in-line quotation,” where you bring the language into your own, and you therefore are limited by its already-existing syntax and you have to sort of wrap your words around it. I think that’s a kind of practical skill that has actually, like, a real practical knowledge behind it. It doesn’t come easy. It’s something you have to learn how to do. And I think it has an implied truth claim to it.

Amanda Anderson: I vividly remember the moment in my own intellectual development when I started adopting that method, and I think you’re absolutely right that it involves a certain kind of truth claim, but I also think that it’s an art.

Jonathan Kramnick: Oh God, absolutely.

Amanda Anderson: Not that you’re not saying that.

Jonathan Kramnick: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, no, absolutely. It’s a creative art. You’re actually making something that has never existed before. You’re making a new object out of what you’re interpreting. 

Amanda Anderson: So you have said a pluralistic array of disciplines matches up with a pluralistic vision of the world. What do you mean by that?

Jonathan Kramnick: Well, what I mean by that is that the pluralistic array of the disciplines, the structure of the university in which there is a department of music and of art history and of sociology and of Near Eastern studies and of chemistry and of electrical engineering and so forth is designed to explain or get a handle on a world which itself has many different parts and components to it. And the world that we want to understand is not just the world of biology and physics. Or just a world of politics. It’s also a world that includes an aesthetic dimension, artistic expression: written, visual, and so on. These objects are as real as anything else out there. So a kind of ontologically populous world in which the domain of the aesthetic is real — it’s out there; it’s of value — is one that requires or implies a university that has itself a heterogeneous and pluralistic structure with no discipline reducing to another, just as no part of the world reduces to something else.

Amanda Anderson: I can imagine someone reading this sentence, particularly someone in the field of literary studies, reading the sentence, and thinking that you are making a political claim in your use of the word “pluralistic.”

Jonathan Kramnick: Sure.

Amanda Anderson: And I’m just wondering, is it a political claim?

Jonathan Kramnick: That’s a great question, and one that I probably have to think more about. It’s a political claim insofar as it is a defense of the at least relative autonomy of the separate disciplines and an effort to come up with a model or an account that argues for their viability. I think there’s a politics to that. But I think that’s also not what you’re asking me. You’re asking me, does this match up with a kind of pluralistic vision of society of competing interest groups and so on, and I kind of don’t think so. I think actually that, if anything, it cedes to, perhaps, political science and sociology, the answer to that question.

Amanda Anderson: Very interesting. Yeah, one might sort of see it as an epistemological liberalism. 

Jonathan Kramnick: Yeah.

Amanda Anderson: Yeah, rather than a political liberalism.

Jonathan Kramnick: And I can see why you’re asking me that question, Amanda. [laughter] You know, I mean, I think at the end of the day, I probably would bite that bullet and say, sure.

Amanda Anderson: So tell us a little bit about your own scholarship, in particular, your recent book, Paper Minds: Literature and the Ecology of Consciousness, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2018. What sort of inquiry are you involved in there?

Jonathan Kramnick: It’s a work of literary studies that is concerned with questions of mind and ecology, interested in the way that conscious experience is — sort of the phenomena we were talking about much earlier in our discussion — is either represented or elicited in works of writing, works of literary writing in particular, poems and novels. And something that emerges out of the ways that human, and non-human animals in fact, are understood to interact with their environment and to sort of move about both the natural and the built world. It looks predominantly at 18th-century works, but not entirely. It also spends some time in 20th- and 21st-century culture. 

Jonathan Kramnick: It is, as I hope I conveyed in my description of it, a work that is interdisciplinary in the way that I described my commitments to interdisciplinarity earlier. That is to say, it is concerned with questions that are of interest to other disciplines — the nature of consciousness, the ways that, you know, consciousness is a transaction between bodies and the worlds they move around in — but that attempts to kind of come at these questions that are of interest to other disciplines using the particular tools and methods of literary studies, namely attention to the formal dimensions of literary objects, close reading, and so on.

Amanda Anderson: Nathaniel Likert in a review in Postmodern Culture of this book calls it “a quiet manifesto.” Do you accept that description?

Jonathan Kramnick: Sure. Yeah, no, I quite like — I both like that review a lot, and I also liked his picking up on something about ethos, sure. I think of myself, largely, as a quiet person, and I certainly would prefer that people understood my work to be, you know, not bombastic.

Amanda Anderson: But to the extent that it is a manifesto, what is it advocating for?

Jonathan Kramnick: Okay, so to the extent that it is a manifesto, I suppose it’s arguing for a non-reductive version of interdisciplinarity that understands the place of literary studies and answering questions that are of interest to other disciplines, on the one hand. On the other hand, it’s also arguing for an attention to the way that conscious experience shows up for humans and other creatures as a transaction with the world, rather than something that is purely internal and private. And that’s something that I learned from other disciplines that I’ve, you know, certain kinds of philosophy, certain kinds of cognitive science, that I was happy to have inform my work.

Amanda Anderson: Wonderful. So as a last question, I’d be curious to get your thoughts about the pandemic. Is there anything to be learned about modern scientific knowledge production in the context of the pandemic?

Jonathan Kramnick: Sure, that’s a great question. We talked at the very beginning of our discussion about the way that the pandemic has laid siege to universities in financial terms, among other things, that has dramatically intensified the job crisis, and this is a real problem for the humanities, but also every other unit of the university. And I think that’s important. But I also think it’s important as a kind of epistemic event, an event in the history of knowledge. I think it’s also important to understand COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus as an epistemic event in a different sense, in the sense that the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 have elicited, really, an unprecedented effort to understand something in very rapid terms and that has drawn upon the resources of the university to explain something, both so they can get a handle on the virus and hopefully develop a vaccine to treat it, but also to understand its impact on economies and societies and cultures so as to mitigate its effects. So, the effect on the institution of knowledge has been dramatic in that sense, a kind of, you know, all-hands-on-deck response by universities and labs and other institutions to really understand the phenomenon, and it has really strained the practice of science, as my friends in the philosophy of science and the history of science have been pointing out a lot recently. The need for quick understanding and quick knowledge of the virus and its effects has strained almost to the breaking point ordinary processes of peer review, has led to a tremendous spike in articles, and we can hope that it hasn’t led to the faulty production of vaccines that might not work, or that might be destructive, and so on. But it’s interesting in that respect, because it is, among everything else that COVID-19 is, it is also an unprecedented and fascinating event in the history of knowledge.

Amanda Anderson: And how do you think that has played out with respect to the humanities, if it has, or what role could the humanities play either in accompanying this rush to knowledge or in reacting to it in what might be a productive way?

Jonathan Kramnick: Right. Yeah. Well, I think unproductively is the sort of, well, what can we do to help out here? How is it that — you know, say, to pick a book from my own period — how is it that reading Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year [1722] can really get a good handle on what’s happening with COVID-19? I get that, you know, I participated in some of that myself, but I think ultimately that’s probably of limited value. I think what’s of maximal value, however, is that the humanities can remind us why we’re bothering to save the planet in the first place. That is, why it is that we want to save lives. Why it is that we want, you know, to figure out how to fix global pandemics so that hopefully it won’t happen again. As again, the domain of value. I think in that way, the contribution of the humanities is utterly essential.

Amanda Anderson: Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Jonathan. It’s been a real pleasure having you on the show.

Jonathan Kramnick: Thank you, Amanda.

Amanda Anderson: Thanks for listening to our show. Meeting Street is produced by the Cogut Institute for the Humanities at Brown University. Each of our shows explores critical topics in the humanities through conversations with scholars and writers who have helped to define issues and shape debates. We hope you’ll join us for our next episode.