Although I am an aspiring scholar of 17th-century devotional poetry, I’ve had a surprisingly large number of drinking buddies who are physicists. Over beers I’ve learned about the Higgs boson, the intricacies of the Large Hadron Collider and the standard model of particle physics. In turn, I hope that maybe they’ve learned a little about Milton’s “Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.”
Such friendships are part and parcel of doing the entirety of my graduate education at institutions that are heavily known for their contributions to STEM fields. I’ve never been able to ignore the sciences, and I wouldn’t think it a luxury even if I could. In talking with scientists, at least on a bar stool, I have tried to be largely free from C. P. Snow’s famous assertion in his 1959 The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution that scientists and humanists are members of “two polar groups” and that between those two lies a “a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”
There is a cottage industry explaining why those studying the sciences need knowledge of the humanities, and I am sympathetic and largely agree with those views. But as a humanist writing to colleagues, I think that we should admit that Snow may still have a point. Too often we approach the sciences with a mixture of fear, envy and misunderstanding.
First, however, some things that I am not arguing: I do not think that science or scientists are beyond humanistic critique. Science, like any system created by humans, is going to be influenced by the wider culture, and as culture is our subject, we’re perfectly equipped to comment on those aspects of STEM that abut history, philosophy, literature, area studies and so on. The subspecialty of science studies has made important contributions to a considered understanding of how science operates within society, and one need not be a relativist to admit that ideology influences scientific discourses.
Second, if mutual suspicion has grown between the two cultures, the fault does not lie solely with us. Many advocates for a particularly positivist view of science (here I am thinking primarily of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins) are not just dismissive of whole shelves of humanistic scholarship, but they’re also downright anti-intellectual about entire disciplines as well. They deserve to be called out.
Finally, I am not claiming that humanistic work can be reduced into the scientific. Interdisciplinary respect need not entail the loss of disciplinary sovereignty, and I am not supporting a type of epistemological imperialism.
Despite those caveats, Snow’s assertion that the humanities have a bit of a science problem remains pertinent a half century later. As humanists, it behooves us to interrogate our own assumptions about the sciences and the occasionally unthinking ways we may project displaced anger onto scientists that are counterproductive to both them and us. Without an honest consideration of how we sometimes speak about science, we risk alienating potential allies in fighting for shared interests -- such as academic freedom, job security and funding in the era of the increasingly corporate university. Furthermore, some of our personal griping about the sciences subconsciously displays an anxiety that is, ironically, profoundly anti-humanist.
In that aforementioned seminal essay, Snow writes, “A good many times, I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists.” While perhaps it’s unwise to universalize that phenomenon, it’s undeniable that Snow identifies an all too common sentiment. There exists a suspicious cringe toward the sciences that is condescending to our colleagues and ultimately not helpful to those of us in the humanities. It includes unstated assumptions that issues of institutional support are always easy for our colleagues in their labs across the campus, as well as the internet flame wars I’ve seen on academic threads griping about science popularization.
Stereotypes Worth Questioning
If anything, the rhetorical problem of the “two cultures” has as of late been exacerbated by the cheap outrage enabled by online culture and the easy discourse of social media, where an attitude of casual disdain toward science and scientists can proliferate. At its worst, I’ve seen the legitimate humanistic analysis of problematic pronouncements made by some scientists veer into an insinuation that said scientists are so unsophisticated that they’re somehow not even legitimately equipped to comment on their own specialties. Or I’ve seen the weird gleefulness of humanists who brag about knowing nothing about science, as if we wouldn’t justifiably denounce the equivalent from our STEM colleagues across the hall as being rank anti-intellectualism.
I’m not innocent in this. From time to time I’ve unfairly stereotyped our colleagues in the sciences as unconcerned or not knowledgeable about history, philosophy and literature. I’ve shared links to online articles and blogs that extol the virtues of humanistic training and research at the expense of the sciences. Oftentimes our disdain can be born out of unpleasant personal interactions with colleagues in STEM fields who are unwilling to acknowledge the difficulties or worth of our own work in the humanities and social sciences. I think the critical attitudes we harbor toward the sciences are almost always related to our legitimate grievances over how neoliberal policies threaten the humanities in higher education.
Being defensive is emotionally understandable, because it can feel that, as humanists, we’re under attack from all sides. After all, when Florida Governor Rick Scott asks, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” and then responds to his own question with, “I don’t think so,” it’s expected. But then when President Obama jokes about the utility of studying art history, it only reinforces our sense of being beleaguered. Such political attacks often use the humanities as a straw man to contrast them with what is presented as the supremely pragmatic choice of supporting the STEM fields. It’s natural that we’d get a bit touchy. So I get it, I really do. But that doesn’t mean that a defensive posture is always the most helpful.
At the risk of engaging in the fallacy of anecdotal evidence, I’ve heard things that highlight what I see as the dangers of painting STEM with the same broad brush with which we’re tarred. I myself shared a popular meme on Facebook a few months ago that claimed the bizarre pronouncements of former presidential candidate Ben Carson are what happen when STEM students don’t take humanities courses. I’m sure you can blame Carson’s strange comments on many things, but his medical training seems unlikely to be one of them. I’ve never seen his undergraduate transcripts -- perhaps he took scores of English and history classes -- but I imagine that those who created the meme really have no idea, either. It was an admittedly funny image, and in advocating for the humanities I imagine it was made with good intentions.
But I think it does little to convince potential academic allies in the STEM fields of much more than our own intellectual smugness. An even more insidious variety of meme that I’ve encountered are those that argue that the benefit of a humanistic education is that it makes scientists somehow more moral in their research.
The implication that scientists are incapable of parsing the ethics of their own work because they haven’t taken a philosophy course is the height of condescension. From advocating for rational climate policy to explaining what’s dangerous about pseudoscientific anti-vaccination rhetoric, scientists are more than capable advocates for ethical policies that intersect with their own research. The old chestnut that argues that studying the humanities somehow makes a person more moral is tenuous at best. The course catalog justification for the humanities as supplying special skills in “critical thought” is also shortsighted one, for it presupposes that critical thinking is our sole provenance (which it obviously isn’t) and that critical thinking is somehow all that we offer (which it also isn’t).
Not Victims or Martyrs
Of course I think it would be fantastic if more scientists did take philosophy courses. It would be fantastic if every college student did that -- not because those courses only help the student in their primary training but because such courses are an unalloyed good in themselves. That’s the ultimate irony in this sort of defense of the humanities: they use the same economic language of utility that other people use to justify increased funding for STEM.
Yet if we position ourselves too much as victims or martyrs, we ignore the oftentimes similar (or even more dire) political position that scientists find themselves in. We commit a fallacy when we confuse political lip service for STEM as being actual support. One only need look at the precarious situation climatologists find themselves in, under attack by ideologically motivated partisans every bit as organized as those who fulminated against the academic humanities during the culture wars. And while I harbor my own resentments that the wider public may view my interest in 17th-century Puritan theology as helplessly esoteric, 30 minutes of speaking to a mathematician who works on topology and number theory disavowed me of any sense of the grass being greener on the other side when it comes to the public embrace of what one might study.
In defending ourselves, in explaining why anthropology or art history is important, we should not engage in the corollary of denouncing the sciences as unimportant. Too often I see the deployment of the same language used against us, or the ironic gambit of self-justification that involves tethering the humanities to the sciences so that the former is enlisted as some kind of handmaid to the later.
I had a conversation at a conference with a fellow humanist who thought that what I think is the self-evidently fascinating field of astrophysics is simply a financial drain on society, as if it’s somehow clear that the study of poetry is obviously important to everyone. In the academy, both fields of study need to be justified, both need to be explained and both need to be defended. That can be done at the institutional level (why not sponsor events between academic societies like the Modern Language Association and American Academy for the Advancement of Science?), as well as in our own professional lives. The recent catastrophic election to the presidency of the United States of Donald Trump, a man with equal disdain for both the humanistic tradition and scientific evidence, is reason enough for building a spirit of solidarity between academic disciplines.
It’s worth considering biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of “non-overlapping magisteria,” which was originally meant to delineate the different domains of religion and science, as a useful template for thinking about the relationship between science and the humanities. Factionalism, jingoism and arrogance are no more attractive when they’re gussied up in humanistic language. Incuriosity is an intellectual sin, wherever its origins. This need not be a zero-sum game, as we’re all playing for the same team.
Ed Simon is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Lehigh University. He is also a widely published writer on the subjects of religion, literature and culture. His work has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, Aeon, The Paris Review Daily, Salon, Atlas Obscura, The Revealer, Nautilus and many others. He can be followed at his website or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.
Submitted by Anonymous on January 5, 2017 - 3:00am
You might prefer not to think about this … but are your students a source of anxiety for you?
Like me, you've chosen your life's vocation largely because you care for students and their betterment; but if we're being really candid, isn't it true that you now feel somewhat wary of them on account of their power to inflict serious damage -- even sudden catastrophic injury -- to your career, with all the grim consequences that this would entail?
That you find yourself catering to them, or at least feeling tempted to do so, lest they suddenly turn against you and make your life miserable?
That you feel little confidence that the administrators at your institution will defend you zealously if you are unfairly criticized, and you think it inevitable that they will care less about guaranteeing fairness to you than about avoiding negative publicity, managing their personal images before the vocal constituencies whose ideological self-identifications and simplistic moral certitudes enable them to issue instant and unerring judgments, and otherwise successfully covering their backsides?
Have you already recognized that, in the current cultural climate, if a single disgruntled student were to issue an entirely phony accusation against you -- maybe sexually harassing words or acts in a private meeting that did or did not ever occur -- you could be effectively defenseless?
That, even for an incident that exists only in one student's fevered or diabolical imagination, you would be immediately relieved of your teaching duties and subjected to an investigation by people who might have their own axes to grind, or lack the humility to recognize the narrow compass of their knowledge, or simply not like you or your views or what they now start characterizing as your “weirdness” or “questionable judgment”?
And that, after all the massive undeserved stress that would ensue, the outcome would very likely be that your academic prerogatives and position would be seriously compromised or even terminated?
Maybe you have never have been troubled by such a seemingly far-fetched scenario, but do you find yourself squirming when you see the fervor with which some students, and the activists with whom they identify, call out and demand "justice" (i.e., harsh punishments) for what they regard as racist, sexist, cissexist and other "microaggressions"?
Do you worry that you must watch your words extremely carefully around students, and even then an entirely innocent and defensible utterance might still earn for itself, and for you, irreversible public condemnation and institutional penalties -- penalties against which you are powerless because of your already insecure adjunct or untenured status, or even against which your tenure would provide no great protection?
Are you fearful because you can't find any protective clear lines that distinguish the intellectually challenging from the culpably "offensive," that distinguish the mere reference to a bigoted claim or term from the embracing assertion or use of it, that distinguish a willingness to inquire about the strengths and weaknesses of a broadly despised position from advocacy for that position?
Have you felt pressure, when hoping to engage with students on a topic that is important to their lives or to society, simply to “not go there” in order to avoid risking an intellectual interaction that is later described as an assault, insult or “invalidation” of a student's perspective? Are you in any danger of becoming, in the words of Mill's On Liberty, one of those "timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral"?
When you read calls for making the classroom a "safe space" for students, do you ever wonder whether it has become an unsafe space for faculty?
Do you sometimes pull your punches when giving feedback on demonstrated weaknesses in students' course work submissions, classroom performance or intellectual character, due to apprehension that frank, direct criticisms, corrections and suggestions might be characterized later as having been "unprofessionally" hostile, demeaning or disrespectful?
Or do you perhaps refrain from giving students appropriately constructive but deeply critical advice due to the more prosaic fear of receiving poor teaching evaluations, given their potential adverse consequences for your pay, promotion and freedom to teach what and as you choose? Do you suspect that unfavorable recommendations are sometimes the results of personal dislike or distaste on students' parts, and accordingly compromise your own standards for dress, humor and other aspects of personal style and presentation in order to avoid striking your students as odd or unattractive?
When you provoke an unjustified hostile comment on a student evaluation form, do you immediately think of showing it to your colleagues to share the amusing absurdity of it, only to back away from this later, as you're not quite sure you entirely trust them to react sensibly?
Do you agree that if you were to submit an essay like this for publication, you, too, would insist upon anonymity, for fear that if your students were to get wind of it, it might give some of them ideas? Does it occur to you occasionally how lucky it is that the vast majority of your students are unaware of the power they have to injure you at will -- and do you find yourself wondering just how long this tenuous situation can hold?
Have you spent any time contemplating other lines of work, or early retirement, or emergency backup plans in the event that you were to be suspended or fired?
If you have answered some of these questions in the affirmative, have you taken any steps at all to ameliorate your predicament?
Have you attempted to get your Faculty Senate to address the threats facing you and your colleagues? Have you given a careful read to your institution's regulations governing complaints and disciplinary proceedings against faculty? If you have, have you sought to have their shortcomings repaired, or even merely pointed out the flaws to the appropriate parties? Have you, at the very least, complained to colleagues about the perilous situation you all face?
Or are you afraid of your colleagues, too, and judge it likely that raising these issues will only mark you for suspicion, and maybe make you even less likely to receive a sympathetic and open-minded hearing if some student(s) should ever turn on you?
What is to be done?
Anonymous is a tenured philosophy professor on the East Coast.
Lake Superior State University on New Year's Eve released its 42nd annual "List of Words Banished From the Queen's English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness." The university collects nominations all year on this Facebook page and releases the word to honor the new year. The word cloud is from the university, showing some of the previously banned words. Previous lists and more information about the project may be found here.
The 2017 list and the reasons given by the university:
You, Sir: Hails from a more civilized era when duels were the likely outcome of disagreements. Today, we suffer online trolls and internet shaming.
Focus: Good word, but overused when concentrate or look at would work fine. See 1983's banishment of We Must Focus Our Attention.
Bête Noire: After consulting a listing of synonyms, we gather this to be a bugbear, pet peeve, bug-boo, pain or pest to our nominators.
Town Hall Meeting: Candidates seldom debate in town halls anymore. Needs to be shown the door along with "soccer mom(s)" and "Joe Six-pack" (banned in 1997).
Post-Truth: To paraphrase the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, we are entitled to our own opinions but not to our own facts.
Guesstimate: When guess and estimate are never enough.
831: A texting encryption of I love you: eight letters, three words, one meaning. Never encrypt or abbreviate one's love.
Historic: Thrown around far too much. What's considered as such is best left to historians rather than the contemporary media.
Manicured: As in a manicured lawn. Golf greens are the closest grass comes to being manicured.
Echo Chamber: Lather, rinse and repeat. After a while, everything sounds the same.
On Fleek: Anything that is on point, perfectly executed or looking good. Needs to return to its genesis: perfectly groomed eyebrows.
Bigly: Did the candidate say "big league" or utter this 19th-century word that means "in a swelling blustering manner"? Who cares? Kick it out of the echo chamber!
Ghost: To abruptly end communication, especially on social media. Is it rejection angst, or is this word really as overused as word-banishment nominators contend? Either way, our committee feels the pain.
Dadbod: The flabby opposite of a chiseled-body male ideal. Should not empower dads to pursue a sedentary lifestyle.
Listicle: Numbered or bulleted list created primarily to generate views on the web, LSSU's word-banishment list excluded.
"Get your dandruff up …": The committee is not sure why this malapropism got nominators' dander up in 2016.
Selfie Drone: In what could be an ominous development, the selfie -- an irritating habit of constantly photographing and posting oneself to social media -- is being handed off to a flying camera. How can this end badly?
Frankenfruit: Another food group co-opted by "frankenfood." Not to be confused with other forms of genetically modified language.
Disruption: Nominators are exhausted from 2016's disruption. When humanity looks back on zombie buzzwords, they will see disruption bumping into other overused synonyms for change.
Jobs for economics Ph.D.s -- whether they wish to work in or outside academe -- are plentiful, according to new data from the American Economic Association.
At the end of 2016, the association had recorded 3,673 listings for positions for Ph.D.s in the calendar year. That's up 11.2 percent from 2015. The association gathers Jan. 6 for its annual meeting (this year in conjunction with other social science groups), a key point in the interview process for many faculty searches. Similar meetings of humanities groups in coming weeks are not expected to see similarly healthy job markets.
The AEA's listings do not include every job (faculty or otherwise) for economics Ph.D.s. But association studies of their job listings are generally considered reliable measures of the state of disciplinary job markets.
One key measure of the health of a disciplinary job market is how job listings compared to the number of new Ph.D.s awarded -- and the numbers are quite favorable to economics Ph.D.s. The most recent Survey of Earned Doctorates -- covering Ph.D.s awarded in 2015 -- found that 1,256 doctorates in economics were awarded that year, roughly a third of the open positions this year.
Of the AEA listings, 2,642 are in academe, a 7.5 percent increase. Nonacademic jobs are up 21.2 percent, to 1,031.
The AEA also examines trends in specializations sought by those doing hiring. As has been the case in recent years, mathematical and quantitative methods led in popularity. It was followed by macroeconomics, microeconomics, financial economics and general economics and teaching.
A study released Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research (abstract available here) finds variation in the effectiveness of instructors at the University of Phoenix, using a required college algebra course to measure results. The study finds that there is not a relationship between pay and instructor effectiveness. The study concludes that "personnel policies for recruiting, developing, motivating and retaining effective postsecondary instructors may be a key, yet underdeveloped, tool for improving institutional productivity."