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Professionalization and the self-replication of university professors

There has been an ongoing discussion regarding the challenges facing higher education in the United States. These challenges are especially acute in the humanities, and of course a budget crisis and recession only magnify existing problems.

Louis Menand, in his book The Marketplace of Ideas, identifies as the core problem the focus of humanities professors on replicating themselves. That is, they seek to produce new humanities professors in their own mold:

His new book suggests that contemporary higher education’s biggest problem is professionalization. The academic department has become a guild, and, like any self-regulating bureaucracy, its errand is to replicate itself. To draw on an example close to Menand, who is both a member of Harvard’s English department and an unfailingly interesting cultural critic at The New Yorker, the result is that “the university literature department is not especially well suited to the business of producing either interesting literary criticism or interesting literary critics.” What it does well, of course, is produce good literature professors.

via Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas. – By Gideon Lewis-Kraus – Slate Magazine.

To a certain extent this is true and necessary of humanities department, I believe. How else will new professors be produced other than through graduate school in the humanities? Potentially unlike other fields, there are very few professional opportunities outside of the academy. Law graduates become lawyers and law professors; engineering PhDs become professional engineers and engineering professors. But what do literature PhDs do, other than teach literature?

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My thought here is that perhaps this is not really a problem with graduate school programs per se, but rather that graduate departments reflect larger societal issues. Personally, I believe corporations and government agencies could benefit from the skills and approaches humanities scholars develop, but this is a hard sell. There is a chicken-and-the-egg problem, of course, since the more specialized and focused graduate programs are on producing people skilled only in being professors, the less desirable these PhDs are outside the academy. At the same time, the less demand there is outside the university, the more focused graduate school will be on preparing their student for their likeliest career path: teaching at a university.

The solution to this — if there is one — is unclear to me, but I intend to continue developing my thoughts and ideas on this as I proceed through my PhD program.

Kristopher Nelson, JD, MA (ABD)

I'm currently a PhD Candidate in History and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego. I provide legal assistance to the TRE Legal Practice. formerly, I was a developer/sysadmin at a biotech non-profit. For more about me and my work, see or my Google Profile. Note: This is not legal advice. I am not licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.

3 responses to “Professionalization and the self-replication of university professors

  1. One aspect of the problem is endemic to professional schools (including law, journalism, nursing, engineering, etc.) — the academics look down upon and substantially exclude from their number those who have had long-term professional careers. Thus, professional school education has a very difficult time merging "theory" with practice in any genuinely effective way and often expresses outright contempt for "mere practice." It's a very odd thing with respect to "theory," which in the professions at least seems to have very little legitimacy except to the extent it has bearing on practice. Moreover, Menand is right in the context of professional schools: in at best condescending to successful practitioners who make their way into the academic world, these professors elevate and promote those who resemble themselves.
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    1. Good points, Peter.

      In law school, perhaps in contrast to other professional schools, there was a strong resistance to "too much" theory, and a bias for instructors who had practiced professionally for at least some amount of time. Strangely, though, this did not translate into a focus on practical and professional training — teaching still stayed in the "theoretical" realm (i.e., mostly discussions of appellate court decisions, which is not where most lawyers are going to be spending their practical time) and very little on client issues, for example, or preparing motions, or drafting contracts, or similar pursuits.

      In the humanities, in contrast, there is no pretense of connection to "practical" concerns. Or, rather, practical concerns are theoretical concerns, since being good at academic issues is what gets you hired! I'd love to see more connection between humanities education and business or other professional pursuits, but there isn't so much of that as yet, as far as I can tell.

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