As any historian planning a final exam will tell you, "turning points" in history are often overstated. Many of the trends that emerge after "watershed" moments had their seeds earlier on. This is true for several developments in the field of Jewish Studies since the financial crisis of 2008. The global recession unleashed six years ago sped up and heightened trends in academic Jewish Studies that had been brewing since the early 2000s. Certainly, 2008 left its particular imprint on the Jewish world, which the field of Jewish Studies is closely connected to as a source of major funding. But many of the challenges our field has faced over the past six years would have likely emerged had the financial markets not melted down.
It's not to say that all is grim. If AJS is one mirror of the field, there are signs of vibrancy, commitment, and productivity. AJS had a record number of members (more than 2000) and a record number of conference participants (1200) this past year; our website brims with information about the more than 230 colleges and universities in North America with majors and minors in the field, and the more than 200 endowed Jewish Studies chairs. Presses continue to publish a breadth of work in the field, despite their own budgetary challenges, and Jewish Studies scholars are redefining the nature of the scholarly monograph with new digital platforms for their work. Jewish Studies has been truly institutionalized (in the best sense of the word) and there is a feeling of at-homeness and confidence among its scholars within the North American university.
And yet, there is an undertone of concern since 2008 about the future of the field. You hear this from tenured professors, those in tenure-track lines, and most frequently, from those in adjunct positions, those just finishing their PhDs, and those still in graduate school. They are aware of change afoot in higher education and academe, especially regarding how students, parents, administrators, boards of overseers, and state legislatures view the college and the classroom experience, and new metrics (largely driven by economic calculations) used to evaluate programs of study. From speaking with AJS members—professors, adjuncts, independent scholars, and students—and from reading widely the publications, blogs, websites, and reports of the higher education press, I see four themes that have come to the forefront of the Jewish Studies collective psyche since 2008.
(1): Concern about Course Enrollments
This is a concern not particular to Jewish Studies, but rather across the humanities and some of the social sciences. Several professors describe feeling the need to reinvent their areas of expertise and course offerings in order to attract more students. Some state that courses that in the past had been "gateways" to Jewish Studies (i.e., on the Holocaust), no longer interest students in great numbers. Others say that Jewish students, who once took Jewish Studies courses as a way to explore their identity, were either no longer as interested in using the classroom as a way to explore their Jewish identity, or were simply just not interested in exploring their identity.
While there are certainly factors specific to Jewish Studies, most would agree that these enrollment trends are part of a broader attack on the humanities and essentially any subject matter non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in higher education today. You see the exact same phenomenon in English, History, Anthropology, Sociology, and language programs across North America, with some institutions closing down programs they regard as nonessential (i.e. not enough majors or the economic value of a major is unclear). This phenomenon is not true for all our members—because of cross-listing policies and how credits can be applied, some professors have seen their enrollments grow—but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule.
(2): Shifting Landscape of Funding Sources
In North America, funding for Jewish Studies has come from both college/university budgets and private funding, largely from the Jewish community; likewise, support for individual scholars and their research has come from national funding entities (i.e. the National Endowment for the Humanities, the ACLS), as well as from private funding sources. But donors of the new generation in the United States, many associated with Jewish family foundations that helped to expand the field of Jewish Studies so significantly in the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s, are shifting their support to other areas. Some are now drawn to the growing field of Israel Studies. Other foundations are shifting control to a younger generation, whose interests expand beyond things Jewish and are not compelled to support Jewish Studies in the way their parents did.
Consequently, Jewish Studies faculty express concern that if someone in their department or program retires, the line might not be replaced, or if it is replaced, it might go to someone doing Israel Studies, for which there appears to be more donor interest, rather than rabbinics, medieval Judaism, or Yiddish literature. There are a few major Jewish foundations in the United States still very much on the Jewish Studies scene, but a debate persists among some Jewish Studies scholars about the ideological orientation of these foundations and their impact on the field. This debate, it's important to note, is not unique to Jewish Studies, but affects virtually every field that accepts funding from outside sources (think for example of the controversies over Confucius Institutes, funded by the Chinese government and overseen by the government agency Hanban). In short, whereas a decade or two ago, the funding opportunities for Jewish Studies seemed ample, the question looms now of who will sustain current programs and support the next generation of scholars.
(3): The State of the Academic Job Market
According to a report in Inside Higher Education on the annual survey of new doctorates conducted by the National Science Foundation, 58.3% of the 5503 students graduating with PhDs in the humanities in 2012 had jobs or postdocs upon graduation, with 83% of the jobs in academe; that's in contrast to 69.9% of those graduating with PhDs in the social sciences who had jobs upon graduation. In terms of Jewish Studies, according to a study of Jewish Studies jobs data since 2010 conducted by Ethan Zadoff, there has been relative stability in the number of postings over the past few years. Still, graduate students I speak to are understandably concerned, and there is a palpable increase in the number openly exploring careers outside of academia, especially if they want to remain in a particular city. Some are reluctant to piece together adjunct positions for too many years, given the difficult economics of adjunct life. As one recent PhD just told me, it is not so much the hours in the classroom, but the boundless hours of preparation and grading that take place outside of classroom time. Combine that with the commuting involved in teaching on two different campuses, and one can easily earn less than $20,000 year doing full-time work, after seven or eight years of intensive professional training, and also have no time to work on the publications that could help secure a tenured line. AJS, among other learned societies, now sees it as our duty to help graduate students explore a range of careers, including work in the non-profit, foundation, publishing, and K–12 teaching worlds.
(4): Relevance/Broader Impact of the Field
Jewish Studies scholars are being asked more and more to demonstrate the impact of their work beyond the university's walls; those applying for grants are often expected to include in their proposals an explanation of how their findings will be made accessible to the general public, through blogs, interviews, public lectures and the like. This is not necessarily a bad thing; most scholars want people to read their work and for their work to have a positive impact on people's lives both inside and outside the classroom. Indeed, in December 2014, AJS revised its mission statement to include reference to our role in connecting scholars with the general public: "AJS's mission is to advance research and teaching in Jewish Studies at colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher learning, and to foster greater understanding of Jewish Studies scholarship among the wider public."
The tensions surrounding the question of "impact" and "relevance" post-2008, though, is that scholars in the humanities are often asked to quantify the impact of their research or of majoring in their field through metrics that are not necessarily suitable for their field (i.e. salary of job after graduation or number of students enrolled in a particular course).
Most scholars want their work to have broader reach and their students to go out into the world well prepared; they just want that reach and preparation to be measured and judged through appropriate means.
What's clear is the need for more data to better understand the state of Jewish Studies in greater depth. AJS has just completed its first major survey of the field since 2008 to shed light on what members' professional lives are like. AJS President Jonathan Sarna will be sharing highlights of the survey in his plenary address at the AJS Conference, and a more detailed report will be shared on the AJS website. In 2015, we hope to follow up this member survey with a census of institutions in order to better understand enrollment, hiring, and graduation trends, as well as the structure and financing of Jewish Studies programs.
What is also required is a sense of perspective. In 1979, writing in the AJS Newsletter, AJS President Michael A. Meyer noted with concern:
When the AJS was founded a decade ago, its priorities clearly lay in establishing the integrity of Jewish Studies as a legitimate area of academic endeavor. . . . The Association sought to provide order and professionalization. To a large extent, it achieved these objectives. Today a new situation, one in which job opportunities have been drastically reduced, has called for a new set of priorities: we must seek to deal in innovative ways with the seemingly intractable problem of job scarcity.
He then went on to describe a special panel to take place at the AJS Conference that would help Jewish Studies PhDs explore jobs outside of academia.
This reminded me how very cyclical many of these trends are, and how we might be discussing four years from now the new wealth of opportunities in the field. It doesn't mean we should sit back and passively ride out this wave, but rather work tirelessly to protect the Jewish Studies programs and positions that took so many decades to build and, we hope, will continue to be in great demand for decades to come.
Association for Jewish Studies