The Humanities and Changing Conceptions of Work


David Theo Goldberg
University of California Humanities Research Institute

Carolyn de la Peña
UC Davis Institute for Humanities Research / UC Humanities Network Chair

David Marshall
Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts, UCSB / Chair, UC Humanities Advisory Committee



The University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI) is the research facility for the humanities and interpretive social sciences reaching across all ten campuses of the University of California system. The Institute’s mission is to engage faculty and graduate students across the UC system in innovative, collaborative, and interdisciplinary research engagements on issues crucial to the human sciences.

UCHRI additionally administers the University of California Humanities Network, a multi-campus initiative funded by the UC Office of the President designed to support, stimulate, and facilitate excellence in humanities research across all ten campuses of the University of California. The Network links together the UC Consortium of Humanities Centers (the group of UC campus-based humanities centers), the UC President's Society of Fellows in the Humanities (a multi-tiered program of research fellowships for faculty and graduate students), and UCHRI.

On behalf of the UC Humanities Network, UCHRI proposes to the Mellon Foundation a comprehensive research program focusing on changing conceptions of work in the face of recent global economic, technological, and social developments, and the implications for the Humanities. Globalization as economic and technological effects has profoundly impacted not just what work is available but how and where we work, what we think of as work, and what skills the humanities and interpretative social sciences must teach to prepare students for work. The research program will seek to comprehend and illuminate these changes. It is intended to draw on the networking strengths of the UC Humanities Network and the global partnerships of UCHRI. The working groups, seminars, and conference will take place on campuses across the University of California, drawing on and promoting the networking strengths of faculty and graduate students across the system. To support the proposed programs we respectfully request from the Mellon Foundation a three-year grant in the amount totaling $800,000.


From the US industrial revolution to the 1980s, work was seen largely in a national frame and as something distinct from home; it was how one earned a living locally and contributed to family well-being; it increasingly became a principal source of self-identity, of dignity and social standing, especially in one’s local community, of self-esteem and self-respect. Left critiques of capitalism were aimed less at this conception of work than at capitalism’s claimed failure to satisfy or inherent capacity to undermine these ideals.  Work was considered a power of production, workers a product to be bought, sold, and bargained over. Most worked for an organization significantly larger than themselves, and sought long-term employment with a single employer. Job and residential mobility increased through and in the wake of World War II’s unsettlements. While technology inevitably was instrumental to many jobs, it was not a major focus of the conception of most work. Technology was considered the specialized domain of technicians, mechanics, engineers, of trained experts, not that of everyday work in the broad.

Much has changed in the past few decades; the very conception of work has altered dramatically. This has been fueled by profound globally made and manifested economic shifts and transformative technological developments.  The sites and sorts of work have shifted significantly from production, and especially industrial output and delivery, to service, whether financial or lifestyle, or increasingly informational.  In the past decade something like 8 million jobs have disappeared in the US; there is considerable pressure on the middle classes who now carry more debt than in any comparable industrial country and the vast majority of whom have seen no increase in real wages over the past three decades. Enterprise, working for oneself, innovation, start-ups, self-making and self-promotion have become significant values. Technology is now pervasive, crucial both to how work is done and how self-conceptions as a “worker” are formed. Social media and the networking of human resources they make possible have become central to successful work activity, enabling work to permeate and integrate with our recreational lives. Entrepreneurship and inventiveness are now valued over the more traditional ideas of labor.

All this stretches work, and considerations of work, well beyond the workplace. Networking today defines the very core of work; innovation, inter-relational and connective capacity are deemed desirable, the marks of productivity. Yet work remains embodied; formal and informal classifications of people continue to impact who can do certain kinds of work: while women and blacks have made significant inroads, some jobs remain at least informally off-limits to both—black unemployment rates remain twice that of whites, for instance. And disability continues to impact perceived capacity for work: 70 percent of formally disabled people are unemployed.

Globalization has both posed deep challenges regarding work and produced opportunities. Manufacturing and lower-end service positions have been shipped offshore, while higher level positions in the knowledge economy have flourished. This has led to some insisting that the US and Europe would continue to provide leadership for the developing knowledge economy, creating significant new demand for higher education.  Yet there is mounting data to show that it is no longer so obvious that a university degree will guarantee higher earnings. On the job training and technical training institutes have stepped into the breach.  Knowledge institutions have expanded in China, Brazil, and elsewhere in Latin America and to some extent in India and South Africa. Technical expertise fueling the global economy is no longer simply the domain of dominant Western institutions (see, for instance, The Global Auction; “The Disposable Academic”; The Last Professors).

Within higher education these changes in global political economy, society, and culture have altered priorities too. How will we prepare students for today’s world? To answer this question requires a new conceptualization of work and commitment to deliver the critical thinking, writing, and language skills required for our students to attain it.


Against this background, we propose a set of research programs to assess the critical transformations in the conception and experience of work and to address how humanities practitioners can prepare students for the work that awaits them in 21st-century global society. This means preparing students so they will have the knowledge and the skills of critical and creative thinking, communication, and collaboration needed for both individuals and countries to be competitive in the multi-cultural and multi-lingual global economy. It also means preparing them to be workers in this rapidly changing environment, so they can not only function successfully but also help to define the work and working conditions that will shape society and their own lives.

Paradoxically, at a time the Humanities has become increasingly devalued, the set of skills it represents is crucially important to economic capacity, political judgment, and civic life. The emphasis across the Humanities in understanding the historical dimensions of social structures, events, developments, habits, practices, and processes—in short on the work of their production and reproduction—supports more reflective and measured judgments for policy-making and social arrangement. In particular, understanding how conceptions, arrangements, and impacts of work have manifested and transformed over time enables comprehension and anticipation of necessary changes, better preparation, and more productive possibilities. The deep history of work—from say medieval and early modern conceptions  onwards—offers a more calibrated sense of how work has been understood, what work looked like in  the past, what work humanistic endeavor engaged in, how it was valued and what it was taken to achieve. This has important curricular implications too, in thinking how best to promote the transferable and flexible skills for which Humanities training is best known.

Questions to be taken up in critical transformations and conceptions of work include the following: How has the conception of work shifted as work disappears and transforms in the wake of economic restructuring and the digital revolution? When work that used to be done locally—whether call centers or service centers or administrative processing or manufacturing goods—is now undertaken in largely invisible locations worlds away, what does that entail for those just coming to grips with what work is imagined to be, what work one imagines oneself doing? What does it mean to be out of work, to lack job security, to be partially employed, to be denied work or consideration because of disability? What is the relation between work and workplace, work and community, work and political stability, and how are the latter impacted by changes to the former? How does the return of work, in many instances, to the domestic sphere impact family life, including who does work and how work impacts well-being? What does it mean to work virtually or to work literally on the fly?  What does telecommuting do to our understanding of workplace and home, privacy and constant availability, to the sense of social, economic, and cultural temporality? How do social media—such as Facebook—enable, constrain, or disrupt work? If one’s work has worldwide conditions, disruptions elsewhere become interventions closer to home; the work of the network is only as strong as its weak point of connectivity; the disposition to be on call literally around the clock and around the world transforming not only how and what we think (of) work but also of others and of self.

These questions are posed in the face of intensifying structural pressures on the Humanities. In the United States, some on both sides of the political divide are proposing to defund the NEH completely or significantly. In Britain there have been recommendations of massive cuts to research and teaching in the Humanities, as there has been by the Ontario state government in Canada. In South Africa a stress on technical education for the historically underemployed has entailed pressure on funding for the Humanities and the Social Sciences.  Whether or not undergraduate Humanities majors and minors are diminishing (and there is conflicting evidence here), it is incontrovertible that tenure track positions in the Humanities have diminished significantly in the past few years (see “Disappearing Jobs”; The Unmaking of the Public University; Remaking the University blog site). Increasingly Humanities graduates are having to find employment elsewhere, most likely outside of University teaching (unless prepared to subject themselves to lives of casual academic employment and vulnerable adjunct status for very low wages). More generally, spiraling un- and underemployment in the global North (in the US the underemployment rate runs conservatively at 17 percent today) has inched up closer to the kinds of rates that have long existed in the global South. How work and workarounds are thought about in the latter class of cases can be revealing for how they might be considered in the former.

We propose to link these concerns to the work of humanists within the university and to the research and pedagogical practice of doing the Humanities. What have been the impacts on pedagogy, research, working conceptions and conditions across the university in general, and for the Humanities more specifically?  What work do the Humanities do, and what do or can they add to work more broadly? If the Humanities are to remain germane to the doing of work in the twenty-first century, in a world of increasingly robust and competitive global labor markets, what skills and considerations do we need to cultivate in our students? In particular, how might these shifts in the concept and practice of work impact what and how we teach in the Humanities, what professions we train our students for, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels? How have new digital technologies transformed how humanists approach their work, what they focus on, how they conduct their research, what outlets they seek, and how the work is being assessed?

The Humanities have historically taught the capacity to think logically and critically, to recognize arguments and fallacies, to make coherent and rhetorically compelling arguments. They have taught language literacy and cultural knowledge, historical understanding and moral/ethical reasoning. Today, the Humanities are challenged to expand their rhetorical capacity to include new media, to address what it means to communicate effectively in writing, speaking, and image making in more diverse environments in global culture, what effective practical reasoning amounts to in the face of complex global arrangements, and how to address cultural and ethical dilemmas in such environments (see “What Can I Do with a Humanities Degree?”). These are skills required to prepare workers for individual and civic success in our global age.  Yet we currently face intensifying structural pressures on the Humanities. Many of us in the Humanities are, on our campuses, within our communities, and in dialogue with our legislatures, on the defense.

Thus we see as inextricably linked this research program to assess the conditions of work in our global society with the pedagogical project to better prepare our students to thrive within those conditions.

The proposed research programs outlined below will put to work the connecting strengths of the UC Humanities Network, drawing on the already existing infrastructure of interdisciplinary multi-campus workshops, seminars, residential research groups, publishing tools, and virtual platforms already available to the Network. The UC Humanities Network already has in place the selection committees, online application and review system, and administrative infrastructure to handle effectively all administrative aspects of the proposed programs.

Following are the annual activities we are proposing over the three years. The University of California Humanities Network existing website will provide the online platform for hosting blogs, webinars, and webcasts of events. The competitively selected working groups and seminars will take place on different campuses across the University of California, while promoting the strengths of multi-campus interactivity between faculty and graduate students.


Year 1: July 2011-June 2012

1. Four Working Groups each consisting of approximately 9 faculty and a graduate student examining the changing and contrasting nature of work in the Humanities and interpretive Social Sciences (Human Sciences, in short, after this). Working Groups will be encouraged to include members from at least two UC campuses. Each of the groups will include a graduate student member. Groups could focus on history, on cultural representations, on textual analysis, on new modes of writing, on blogging, or on media as new rhetorical forms, on the impact of new technologies or social media on work, and so on. A Working Group might focus on work generically understood; another on work across higher education in contrast to non-academic work; a third on work of, in, and across the Humanities; and so on. Groups will also address the implications of these changed notions of work for curricula in the Humanities, for what we should be teaching, and how. The graduate student participants will be connected with each other in a virtual network. The student Scholars will blog about issues raised in the Working Group discussions and also interview participating faculty about current conditions of work in global environments as well as on work specifically in the Humanities. Each graduate scholar will be covered for one quarter GSR and tuition fees (with appropriate adjustments for semester based campuses). The webinars and interviews will be archived on the UC Humanities Network website ( Groups will be competitively selected, and will be required to produce a collectively produced outcome, publicly available, such as a concept paper or curriculum.

2. Collaborating with the Working Groups, UCHRI will orchestrate a series of webinars pairing faculty participating in the Working Groups in discussion with social science authors whose research has addressed the changing nature of work. Discussants would include authors in the monograph series of the Sage Foundation’s Changing Conceptions of Work as well as those who have written about work and higher education, such as the authors of The Global Auction (Brown, Lauder, and Ashton), the author of The Last Professors (Donoghue), representatives of the AAUP, ACLS, and so on. The webinars will be widely advertised and broadcast, and will be archived on the UC Humanities and UCHRI Vimeo sites, easily accessible to be consulted or used for teaching purposes by anyone interested to do so.

3. A series of three three-day workshops pairing UC faculty with global partner researchers focusing on the comparative and relational considerations regarding changing conceptions and practices of work in different global sites and the impacts of work and working conditions in these different sites on each other (US, China, South Africa, Southern Europe). We have already initiated discussions with the University of the Western Cape Humanities Center and their networked relations with Makerere University in Uganda as well as universities in Mali and the Goree Institute on Goree Island off Dakar, Senegal to fashion a “new humanities” in Africa. We likewise have established relations with Peking University and the Beijing Foreign Studies University’s Center for Cultural Studies, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelonaand Coimbra University in Portugal. Two of the workshops will be held at non-UC partner institutions, the third at UCHRI. Participants in workshops will be expected to engage in a public forum on the topic following the workshop. Public forums will be videotaped and archived on the UC Humanities Network and UCHRI websites.

Year 2: July 2012-June 2013

1. Three Working Groups on work in the Human Sciences (see Year 1, #1). Working Groups could apply for renewed funding but would have to show material progress and output from Year 1 activities, and they would be competing with new proposals. If renewed, Working Groups would be expected to expand their products into more sustained output like a book, an edited volume or journal issue, a keyword text, an online publication, a film festival, a curated web discussion or a panel at a major Association meeting such as MLA or American Studies Association, etc.

2. A series of three workshops of UC faculty in conjunction with global partner researchers focusing on the comparative and relational considerations regarding changing conceptions and practices of work in different global sites (US, Lebanon, Mexico, South Africa). In addition to our networks in South Africa, we have developed working relationships and research programs with the Museum of Modern Art at UNAM in Mexico City, and the Center for Literary Studies at American University, Beirut. Participants in workshops will be expected to engage in a public forum on the topic following the workshop. Public forums will be videotaped and archived on the UC Humanities Network and UCHRI websites.

3. A series of three graduate seminars. Each seminar will be taught by one of the faculty participating in any one of the funded Working Groups, and will be competitively selected. The seminars will focus on work, both generally understood and as it applies to knowledge work both in and beyond the academy. Discussion will include a focus on an expended notion of literacies (linguistic, cultural, media, technological), and on the work undergraduates and graduates today ought to be trained to undertake professionally. Courses will be competitively selected. Curricula for the seminars will be placed on the UC Humanities Network website as a teaching resource.

4. A Society of Fellows retreat (at Westerbeke in Calistoga) for faculty and graduate students focusing on changing conditions of work, and the implications these changing conditions have for teaching and research within the Humanities and interpretive Social Sciences. The UC Society of Fellows is administered and coordinated by the Humanities Network, and the retreat would include some Working Group representatives, Humanities Center Directors, and Humanities Deans. The Retreat will invite addresses from senior representatives in leading organizations such as MLA, APA, ACLS, and AAUP. The presentations at the retreat will be videotaped and archived on the UC Humanities Network website. It is also expected that an e-publication follow from the Retreat, perhaps in the University of California Press e-imprint series.

5. Summer Institute on Work: Open for international Graduate Students and Faculty to participate. The Institute is one in the annual series of Summer Institutes hosted by UCHRI on different themes in the Humanities. The Institutes have been enormously successful and appealing. Participants come away having engaged intensely with others and experts in the filed on the pressing issues related to the theme, often leading to new insights and ways of thinking about the subject matter, helping faculty in their teaching and graduate students to think about their own work in transformative ways. Typically running ten days to two weeks, they attract 180 applicants on average for approximately 50 participating slots. Instructors are experts in the field; in this case they will be drawn from UC and international faculty participating in the other programs of the research initiative on Work. The Summer Institute will enable us to broaden the range of people thinking about issues of work generally and in the academy and related to the Humanities in particular. The intensity of a two-week discussion often leads to insights and sustained work otherwise less likely achievable. We videotape the plenary sessions and will archive the recorded discussions on the UC Humanities Network and UCHRI sites as reference and teaching resources. This material, in turn, will be available to build on by the Residence Research Group, the Working Group, and global seminar activities to take place in Year 3 of the grant.

6. Faculty Summer Stipend: Seven one-time summer research stipends of $7,000 will be awarded through a competitive process to faculty from across the UC campuses who are working on concerns related to work and the humanities.  These funds will be available to those who have participated in the project’s collaborative research groups and to those who are participating in the project for the first time.  The goal of these funds is to enable scholars with existing research projects to bring them nearer to completion and to invite new scholars in to this research area.  The result will be greater scholarly productivity and an influx of fresh ideas into the project’s third and final year.   Humanities directors on each campus, working collaboratively, will oversee the competition, select summer stipend awardees, and administer the funds. 

Year 3: July 2012-June 2014

1.One-quarter Residence Research Group at UCHRI on The Human Sciences at Work (with appropriate adjustments for faculty from semester based campuses). Up to 10 faculty and graduate students competitively selected from across the University of California. Membership will likely be from the previous two years’ Working Group membership. The Residence Research Group’s output will be a set of recommendations on the impact of changing conceptions of work on what and how we teach in and across the Human Sciences. They will draw in part on the work produced by the Working Groups.

2. A Working Group on changing criteria of assessment for new modes of work in the Humanities. As new modes of especially multi-media work have materialized in the Humanities, they have tended to be assessed on the basis of older established assessment criteria especially in the case of hiring, tenure, and merit promotions. The Working Group is intended to consider the range of new assessment criteria, their relevance and viability. The outcome will be a survey of existing initiatives around these questions, and recommendations to be made available in an easily accessible public forum inviting comments. The Working Group will include approximately 8 faculty and 2 graduate students

3. A series of three seminars of UC faculty in conjunction with global partner researchers focusing on the comparative and relational considerations regarding changing conceptions and practices of work in different global sites (US, National University of Singapore, South Africa, Latin America, Europe). Participants in workshops will be expected to engage in a public forum on the topic following the workshop. Public forums will be videotaped and archived on the UC Humanities Network and UCHRI websites.

4. A UC Society of Fellows Conference: How the Humanities Work
A closing public forum drawing on faculty and graduate students who have participated in activities over the three years. Non-UC faculty working in the area will be invited as key interlocutors too. The proceedings will be videotaped. An edited version will be aired on UCTV, the University of California satellite and cable television network reaching 8 million households in the tri-state region.


The grant activities will be overseen by the UC Humanities Network, represented by and David Theo Goldberg, Director of the UC-wide Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI), Carolyn de la Peña, Chair of the UC Humanities Network of UC Humanities Center Directors, and David Marshall, Chair of the UC Humanities Advisory Committee and Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts, UCSB. The co-PIs, will coordinate activities, oversee assessment, and ensure that program goals are met.

On each of the competitively selected programs supported by the grant, UCHRI will issue an open call to all faculty and (where relevant) graduate students across the University of California, inviting applications. Programs will be distributed as evenly as quality of applications allow across the different campuses of the University of California. Applications and reviews will be made to UCHRI’s robust online application and review system, FastApps.  The selection committee will vary by program accordingly:

Working Groups: The UC Humanities Network of all UC Humanities Center Directors will serve as the selection committee as part of its annual cycle of selection for UC-wide Multi-campus Research groups.

Seminars: The Advisory Committee of UCHRI will serve as the selection committee as part of its annual assessment cycle for UCHRI seminar funding. UCHRI’s Advisory Committee consists of a representative from each of the ten campuses. Each is appointed in consultation with the respective campus Humanities Dean and approved by UCHRI’s Board of Governors.

Residential Research Group: Participants will be selected competitively by UCHRI’s Advisory Committee as part of its annual selection of Residential Research Groups.

Graduate Seminars: Campuses can each nominate one Graduate seminar proposal. Nominations will be selected according to the regular process of the respective Humanities Center.  Final selections will be made by UCHRI’s Advisory Committee as part of its regular selection cycle.


“Disappearing Jobs,” Inside Higher Education, December 17, 2009.

Remaking the University.

“The Disposable Academic: Why Doing a PhD is Often a Waste of Time,” The Economist, December 16, 20101.

The Global Auction: The Broken Promises of Jobs, Education and Income, Philip Brown, Hugh Lauder, and David Ashton. Oxford University Press, 2010.

The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, Frank Donoghue. Fordham University Press, 2008.

Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class, Christopher Newfield. Harvard University Press, 2008.

“What Can I Do with a Humanities Degree?” Bruce Janz.