One morning not too long ago, I opened Inside Higher Ed and read a story about the dwindling support for humanities. Citing low enrollments, Western Illinois University had just cut four degree programs, including philosophy and religious studies. Faculty members were worried. Metrics were being questioned.
In other news outlets, another dire situation played out: more student protests over a lack of diversity -- this time at Seattle University. The tone was urgent. The institution placed the dean on administrative leave, and the students demonstrated for 22 days, demanding more attention to diversity in the curriculum.
Were these two separate stories? Or were they, in fact, closely intertwined?
Campus politics over the past decade have centered on diversity issues -- on addressing racial, ethnic, sexual and gender bias in the student body, faculty and administration. “Inclusivity” is the watchword on campuses today. Consequently, over the past few years, new diversity officers have been hired, budgets for diversity efforts have been skyrocketing -- in 2015, for instance, Yale University committed $50 million toward faculty diversity initiatives -- and intellectual approaches to the understanding of diversity are being integrated into curricula at places like Hamilton College.
While the emphasis on diversity is gaining momentum, force and funding, the perceived crisis in the humanities appears to be fading into the background, left to defend itself ad nauseam. In fact, it seems that these two movements may even be functioning against one another. The result of more affordable access to college for lower-income students, for example, may very well be leading to cuts in programs with low enrollments or lower salary yields (i.e., the humanities), as Gordon Hutner and Feisal G. Mohamed of the University of Illinois readily underscore in “The Real Humanities Crisis Is Happening at Public Universities.”
But can our institutions of higher education afford not to support and invest heavily in the humanities? Can we welcome a growing number of diverse students without increased attention to the study of languages, art, music and cultural contributions of people from diverse communities around the world? Can our country claim to educate democratic citizens without teaching our children to analyze the messages that inform their personal and political lives -- skills learned in literature classes? Can our country grapple with radical Islamic groups while defunding religious studies programs and courses in Arabic language and culture, art, and history?
I find it troubling that explicit and comprehensive support for the humanities as central to any institution’s efforts to build a diverse and inclusive curriculum and campus culture has largely been absent from national conversations.
The humanities inform the kinds of values implicit in diversity and inclusion initiatives because our disciplines consistently demand that we become more attuned to the nuances of each other’s lives. The knowledge students gain in the most diverse learning hubs on our campuses -- as most of our modern languages and literatures departments are -- allow them to more truly value each other’s differences inside and outside the classroom, in local or global communities. In those spaces, they learn to confront their own biases and blind spots by engaging with distinct social and cultural backgrounds and the ways in which language, literature, theater, film, art and media shape and inform diverse and ever-changing worldviews and identities every single day.
The humanities give us the knowledge and the skills to share and express who we are and how we see our place in the world. In the process, we all gain the critical and creative thinking, communication, and comprehension skills needed to build the bridges that our diversity and inclusivity efforts are working toward.
The goal of diversity measures is to broaden the voices and perspectives on a campus. So why are we cutting out the vital stream of voices embodied in the arts and humanities? In an era of tight budgets, these may be seen as competing priorities, as distinct issues, but that’s a mistake. Greater diversity can broaden our conceptions of art, history, music, language studies and other arts and humanities. And the arts and humanities can support and enrich a culture of inclusivity across many communities, fields and professions.
Christine Henseler is a professor of Spanish and Hispanic studies at Union College.
I’m a mathematician. I’m teaching Calculus II and mathematical structures for computer science this term. I write blog posts on topics like the best way to determine whether two lines intersect in three-dimensional space. Yet at 3:30 p.m. on the day after Trump’s election I found myself on a hastily convened panel with five of my faculty colleagues, facing an emotionally charged crowd of about 400 students, faculty and staff.
Our mission -- it felt like we were a team in that moment -- was to help our campus make sense of the results of an election that many found shocking and even frightening. The rest of the panel consisted of professors of politics and government, religion, gender and queer studies, and African-American studies. Why was a mathematician on the panel? I was the person the university found to give the conservative perspective.
After explaining my function on the panel, I said the following:
"It’s kind of odd that I’m here to be the conservative on this panel; I’m not that conservative. I’m probably more of a right-leaning moderate. I also didn’t vote for Trump, as I have concerns about his judgment and temperament. Instead, I voted for Gary Johnson. But this is Puget Sound, and so here I am representing the conservative perspective.
"Right now I feel a lot of things. I feel fear and worry. As I said, I’m concerned about Trump’s judgment. I’m also concerned because of the anger and division that I see, as well as the bad behavior by some of Trump’s supporters.
"As I watched the election returns roll in last night, though, I was surprised to discover that I also felt kind of excited, maybe even elated. And so why is that?
"I grew up in a small town in north Louisiana in the 1980s: a world that is Southern, rural, conservative and Christian. I’m second-generation college: my grandparents worked at jobs like coal miner, gas station attendant, department-store clerk, farmer, beautician. For most of my adult life I’ve been an academic, though, and for the past 11 years, I’ve worked at a very progressive liberal arts college in one of the most progressive parts of the country. That has given me a sort of double vision or cultural whiplash at times.
"Hillary Clinton called my people 'deplorable.' She said we were 'irredeemable.' Our current president, who I think sees the world similarly, said that my people are bitter clingers who hold on to guns and religion because we don’t have anything else worthwhile in our lives. Why would I want to support someone like that? Someone who talks that way about my people is not going to do a good job representing me. I’m glad she lost. I’ve got some concerns about Trump, but I’m glad Hillary Clinton lost.
"To understand this election, you have to understand that to be white working class means that you have almost no power. Not economic. Not cultural. Neither do you have the power that comes from moral authority, unlike most other victimized groups.
"To a large degree, Trump represents the revolt of the white working class. The revolt is partly economic. The cultural aspect is that they’re tired of being, in their minds, looked down on and condescended to by the people who run the country.
"I’ll hypothesize that, in some respects, the more Trump is mocked for his hair, his language, his racism, his sexism, his bigotry, the more the white working class says, 'That’s how I’ve been treated, too. Trump is like me. Trump is one of us.'"
I wasn’t sure what to expect from my campus after saying this, in an emotionally charged room with hundreds of people. But it represented the culmination of something that had been building in me for years.
Shut Out of Group Norms
I became an academic because I wanted to teach, help my students work through the big questions of life and discuss those big questions inside a larger community. I wanted a career at a liberal arts college. On the political axis, I thought of myself as a moderate. I knew academe leaned to the left, but I had always thought of the left (and academics in particular) as being fairly open-minded.
Not too long after I took my first tenure-track position in the fall of 2004, I was invited to a party by one of my colleagues. I had assumed it was just a friendly get-together. Most of the evening, however, was spent bashing President Bush. The critiques were more visceral than intellectual, and I saw none of the nuance that I expected from academics. In hindsight, I realize that much of what the guests were doing was signaling to each other their membership in a community, as well as venting frustrations, and they had assumed the party was a space where they could do that.
For unrelated reasons, I took a position at my current university -- a very different institution, in a very different part of the country -- the following year. Here, I have repeatedly found myself in situations where someone makes assumptions about everyone in the room, assumptions that I don’t share. The culprit has always been my Southernness, or my small-town background, or my Christian faith, or my lack of progressivism.
I remember the awkward silence that briefly followed when one of my students asked me outside of class whether I am religious, and I told him I am a Christian. I remember the snide comment about Texas at a faculty workshop. I remember a colleague’s casual dismissal of Fox News and the people who watch it. My mother watches Fox News. She’s one of most giving and selfless people I know -- someone who dropped everything to do disaster relief work in south Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
I remember others’ stories, too. I remember the two conservative students who vented in my office for half an hour, thankful that somebody was willing to listen to them. I remember the conservative colleague who told me that he’s tired of being a target and so he just keeps his head down now. I remember the alumnus who told me that he would never have dared to be out as a Christian on our campus because then he wouldn’t have had any friends.
Every institution has a culture and a set of shared norms, and an academic institution is no different. Those sacred values don’t come from the institution’s mission statement but arise from the shared set of beliefs held by the people who are part of it. A newcomer to a college may not ever be able to articulate that college’s norms, but he internalizes them every time an idea is praised with no countervailing opinion expressed. She internalizes them every time a group is criticized, and no one comes to that group’s defense. Over time the in ideas and out groups become part of the assumptions that people make. You don’t even think about them anymore. They’re like the oxygen in the air.
Where does that place you when you don’t share many of those norms? Sometimes you find yourself bewildered. On the literal level, the discussion is about Donald Trump or Barack Obama or George W. Bush or racism or transgender rights or environmental policy. But really the conversation is often about sacred values. When you don’t share the group norms, you feel shut out of the conversation because its very framing assumes the group norms. People don’t listen to the stories you use to explain your views because your stories are tied up with your norms -- not theirs -- and they don’t have a good mental place to connect them to. As a result, your stories get explained away.
You can always try to go deeper, of course. However, trying to get the group to look hard at its assumptions and then trying to explain why you don’t share them is difficult and exhausting. And even when you do have the energy, it’s easy to transgress some norm that you didn’t see and then face an unexpected blast directed at you. That makes you want to engage even less.
Besides, there are much easier options. You can become cynical. You can become angry. You can start hating the group. You can nurture your pain and envision yourself as a beleaguered minority. You can start throwing rhetorical explosives, which sure feels good -- at first. You can find another group. I’ve been tempted by most of these possible actions and have committed several of them.
The story that I’m telling here is about me at a progressive liberal arts college and slowly identifying more over time as conservative. It could also be the story of the white working class at the national level. And that brings me back to Trump and the post election panel.
After I finished my remarks, I was worn out. I had just made myself far more emotionally vulnerable than I am used to, and I had done it in front of an angry and fearful crowd. I don’t remember much of the question-and-answer session, but I don’t think I had the wherewithal to attempt to answer anyone’s questions.
After it was over, one of my faculty colleagues made her way up to the table. “Thank you,” she said, “Your remarks made this all worthwhile.” The next person in line was a student. “My father is really conservative. I don’t agree with him on a lot of things, and I’m scared about Thanksgiving. Do you have any advice for me?” She started tearing up. I hope what I said was helpful. Another student: “I’m a moderate. Thank you for giving another perspective.” “Just … thank you,” from a student in one of my classes this term. Then more expressions of thanks from faculty colleagues: “We should talk more,” “That’s exactly what we needed” and even “Nice pedagogy.”
Then, that night, I started getting emails. They continued to trickle in over the next several days. They said things like “That gave me a sense of courage,” “I realized I haven’t been listening well or asking the right questions,” “While you and I don’t agree, it was important for me to hear that” and “Thank you for pointing out that we are not all evil.” All in all, somewhere around 25 or 30 people have made a point of expressing gratitude for my remarks. The feedback hasn’t been uniformly positive -- I’ve also received some pushback -- but even that has been collegial.
I’ve responded in multiple ways. Scenes from Jerry Maguire keep running through my head: the ones where Jerry criticizes his company, everyone applauds and then Jerry gets fired. At least I have tenure, while Jerry did not. Another is a feeling of regret -- regret that I’ve underestimated my own campus.
Mostly, though, I’m more hopeful now than I have been in quite some time about my university. I hope we can dial back the inflammatory rhetoric -- especially the “-ists” and the “phobics” that we slap as labels on people. I hope we can do a better job of listening to people who have different values -- especially to a large group of people in this country who are not well understood by academics but whose support just elected Donald Trump president.
To understand the disparate people in our country, however, we need a greater variety of perspectives than we have now on campuses. Our sacred values shouldn’t effectively exclude large swaths of the country. We shouldn’t have to tap a moderately conservative mathematician who didn’t vote for Trump to give the conservative view on Trump voters.
Academe shouldn’t even be an institution that needs hastily convened panels like the one I was on: we should know how large groups of people in this country think and feel. We should be teaching their experiences and listening to them. We should have more people with their belief systems on our campuses, teaching and learning, so we can learn from them.
And so I find myself, ironically, arguing in favor of one of academe’s most sacred values: diversity. I’m not arguing for diversity the way academe functionally defines it, though. Instead, I’m arguing for intellectual diversity. Trump’s election -- and academe’s response -- only confirm that, for an institution of higher learning, it's the most important kind of diversity to have.
Mike Spivey is professor of mathematics at the University of Puget Sound.
Following the success of its scholarly communication platform, MLA Commons, the Modern Language Association has launched the beta version of Humanities Commons, a nonprofit, open-access network. The new commons is designed to provide scholars, teachers, librarians and other humanists with a way to share their work and teaching materials and to network. Humanities Commons features a library-quality digital repository, the Commons Open Repository Exchange, or CORE, where users can share and archive conference papers, syllabi, peer-reviewed articles and other documents and media.
“CORE offers Humanities Commons members the opportunity to increase the reach of their work -- as soon as it’s produced,” Kathleen Fitzpatrick, the MLA’s associate executive director and director of scholarly communication, said in a statement. “We hope that the platform can also be a hub for teachers looking for resources, writers looking for potential collaborators or conference organizers seeking a way to share materials.” The project is supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The current public assumption that safe spaces and trigger warnings conflict with academic freedom and are the result of political correctness gone mad is a false dichotomy. If students today are indeed more fragile, then it is vital that we in higher education understand: (1) the specific nature of this sensitivity and (2) what colleges can do to help.
After this divisive election, we will need more capacity for talking about controversial issues. While the anonymity of social media may have escalated invective, it has not made for more ease with difficult conversations. Technology has allowed a generation to end relationships by text message, or even by “ghosting” an ex -- deleting a relationship from your life without any conflict or effort.
Avoiding conflict, of course, also sacrifices an opportunity to learn. Our campuses and world, meanwhile, are increasingly more religiously, culturally and ethnically diverse and now more politically divided. So at the very moment when we have more varied ideas, thoughts and opinions on our campuses, we also have students who are less equipped and perhaps less eager to have challenging discussions.
The U.S. Department of Education recently issued a Dear Colleague letter to college presidents asking that we help students learn to disagree in a “respectful manner.” But what it means to be “disrespected” is highly contested, so we are indeed having difficult conversations about trigger warnings and safe spaces. Ultimately, college is about helping students think critically. That requires learning how to interrogate complexity while withholding judgment and trying to feel safe in precisely those uncomfortable spaces where our ideas and attitudes are being challenged.
But this is a process. The first stage of college is finding a safe home. We learn much more when we explore from a place of safety, have the rights tools and feel accepted as equal partners in the discourse. The news media has greatly exaggerated the very few students who want “protection” from ideas they find uncomfortable. Safe spaces are mostly simply places of congregation, and assembly with other people who share your ideas, history and culture is a basic human impulse. With a safe home base established, we can then encourage students to venture into discussions in which they may have greater discomfort.
Pedagogy is about moving from comfort to discomfort and eventually finding comfort in discomfort. The measure of a college, then, has nothing to do with the sensitivity of its first-year students or if their professors use trigger warnings, but rather with the outcomes. Can we teach students to embrace ambiguity and discomfort? And, if so, how?
A Path Forward
First, colleges must assemble a diverse community of learners. Employers say they want graduates who can solve complex problems with people who are not like them. This year, for example, the first-year class at Goucher College is 35 percent students of color and 25 percent Pell-eligible students. We also have students from 60 countries on our campus, and we require 100 percent of our undergraduates to study abroad, as travel can be a great way to encounter differences and discover that not everyone speaks or thinks as you do.
But bringing diverse students together is just the beginning. To have open, meaningful and difficult conversations, young people also need to learn to live with a higher tolerance for ambiguity -- or “the tendency to perceive ambiguous situations as desirable.” It is essential for democracy, and it is being used in research on global leadership because it is related to cross-cultural communication and performance in diverse work environments. At Goucher College, we use a Tolerance for Ambiguity scale that asks students to respond to statements like:
An expert who doesn’t come up with a definite answer probably doesn’t know too much.
A good teacher is one who makes you wonder about your way of looking at things.
The sooner we all acquire similar values and ideals the better.
We are using that tool and other existing psychological constructs to measure where our students are when they first arrive on our campus in terms of dealing with ambiguity, and then we follow up every year to see if and when they have progressed. All of this is confidential and analyzed by researchers only in the aggregate. We will, however, look for patterns and connect trends with pedagogy and activities. (Are juniors willing to take more cognitive risk? Did our required study abroad experience increase cultural sensitivity?)
This work is at an early stage, but our hope is that we will come to understand better how college and various interventions can have an impact. We have begun by actively doing everything we can as college administrators and faculty members to demonstrate that there are multiple good answers, that knowledge is complex and that we can change our minds.
We must also be intellectual and ethical role models, so on our campus, we are responsive and transparent about student concerns. We routinely engage students in open meetings and alter policy as a result of their input. It is certainly more work, but it has the dual benefit of building community while modeling that smart people have open minds.
We must also create a campus culture that invites and supports the most difficult conversations. On a night of unrest in Baltimore, I joined a spontaneous gathering of dozens of faculty members and students watching the news. Late into the night, students continued to share their responses, fears, anxieties, hurts and pains. It was profoundly uncomfortable -- and we all learned. In the weeks that followed, we decided we need to be even more uncomfortable, and a group of faculty members created a seven-week seminar, Back to School on Race. More than 150 faculty and staff members signed up and participated -- and we all learned more about the deep structures of racial inequity as seen through the lenses of multiple disciplines, as well as the ongoing pain and discomfort that such topics bring to many members of our own community. This became a springboard to further conversations about curriculum, pedagogy, support and campus culture.
Thus, to help our students embrace discomfort, we must first establish a home for them. Later we encourage them to encounter discomfort, allow them the time to reintegrate that new information and then send them back out to embrace more discomfort.
Next fall, we will also introduce a new curriculum that begins with a first-year seminar designed to welcome students to the world of inquiry through faculty members who model their own passionate exploration of a topic of their choosing, with the focus more on how faculty are thinking about their topic rather than what they are thinking. Students will then take three exploration courses that are based in our new interdisciplinary academic centers. Over four years, and not in a single course, students will also need to demonstrate that they are racially and culturally literate.
We encapsulate all these efforts in our new version of the three R’s of learning: relationships, resilience and reflection. We start by getting to know our students. We emphasize to them the importance of building relationships that will prepare them for more discomfort. We focus on resilience (and also measure this in our students) because we have found that, in general, those who see failure as an opportunity learn more, grow personally and succeed professionally. Conflict and failure allow us to test boundaries and open us up to new ideas and new perspectives.
Reflection is what ties it all together and feeds our compassion and social conscience, so we will soon require all graduating students to develop a reflection portfolio. Recognizing there are a multiplicity of accents, experiences, histories and values living all around us is a first step, but we must then also reconsider our own values, frameworks and prejudices, and then confront our differences honestly.
Technology and globalization have increased our exposure to difference, but that alone has not opened hearts and minds. The internet offers us increasing access to new ideas and knowledge, and most of what students will need to know for the jobs of the future, they will need to learn as they go along after they graduate. That means that colleges should focus less on making sure we cover the content and more on teaching students how to become self-regulated learners. New knowledge is only really useful if you know how to let it in and allow it to change your mind. We need to rethink the pedagogical processes by which we get students to truly embrace difference.
Without critical thinking, discernment and reflection, democracy retreats from the sound of the loudest voice. The value of the liberal arts will only increase as knowledge and ideas proliferate. We need graduates who are not only capable of difficult conversations but also eager to listen and reflect. Perhaps we should restrict degrees to those who realize the answer to most difficult questions is almost always “It depends.”
José Antonio Bowen is president of Goucher College.
As long as universities have been around, people have debated the purposes for which they are intended and what they actually might be. One way that has played out is in the myriad metaphors that have attached themselves to higher education.
We are all aware of the central metaphors of campus life: the ivory tower, the college community and the recent earnest demand that we see college as a business. Metaphors do their work by a sort of cognitive mapping, illuminating the complex and unknown by reference to things we think we understand. What we would like to offer as a provocation is a metaphor that maps the relationship between modern educators and the institutions that they serve as being similar to that between cities and suburbanites. This metaphor can illuminate some of the cultural problems on many campuses, including the general mistrust between faculty members and administrators as well as the concerns over the corporatization of the university.
The single most immediately recognizable -- indeed clichéd -- feature of American middle-class cultural life is the suburb. In the ideal, suburbanites divide their political and personal allegiances between where they work and where they live. In the stereotypical idealization, suburbanites are middle-class owners of detached single-family homes who live a physical and psychic distance from the cities where their jobs are located. Commuting to their places of work by automobile or, more rarely, by public transportation, suburbanites have a different relationship to the cities in which they work than do the residents of those cities.
Is there anything in this cliché that does not map the relationship of most academics to the institutions they serve? As much as we faculty members may be devoted to our jobs and, perhaps by extension to our institutions, we have much the same relationship with our colleges as suburban commuters do with the cities where they work. Our college, a midsize residential comprehensive college, is by no means unique. About 5,000 undergraduates inhabit the campus 24/7. We faculty arrive en masse, mostly in single-occupant automobiles, between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., Monday through Friday, and leave like an ebb tide by around 5 p.m. After that time and on weekends, the only people on campus over the age of 22 are the campus police, a skeleton maintenance staff and the heroic librarians -- except for when we show up for the occasional performance, sporting event or lecture.
A walk through the halls of most colleges in the evening and at night can be quite unnerving. The campus does throb with life after we have left it, but it is a culture in which we do not participate, about which we are almost entirely ignorant and which we often publicly disdain. The people who inhabit our campuses live in a different polity than we do. Their behavior often appalls us. They stay up late. They carouse. We pontificate among ourselves about their lack of work ethic and impulse control.
Most of all, they are not like us, and we rarely have contact with them in what we think of as their cultural space. Ultimately, the campus is designed for the students who live there.
Our academic facilities have been imagined as suburban destinations. A typical faculty building has no common areas, no places for collaboration or socialization, nothing but a row of “houses” in which we keep our office hours. The layout of most of our offices is side by side and uncommunicating on a hallway, and while we may talk to our neighbors in the hall, the next floor up or down is often too far away to result in casual conversation. We all know that if you want to meet other faculty members, you should join a committee.
Classrooms are typically shaped entirely to serve a single purpose. Victims of the brutalist nostrum that form follows function, we can do little with our buildings other than teach classes, and they stand unused at virtually all other times. Only the most profligate enterprise would pay the enormous capital expense of erecting a staggering numbers of buildings to be used only for a few hours a day, five days a week, for less than eight months out of a year.
Unlike a city, however, we have little public space. Typically, there are few if any restaurants or coffeehouses that provide a place for accidental meetings, conversations or general sociability. Faculty members often eat lunch in their offices or not at all, because they don’t have any other place to go. The dining halls are for students, too crowded and seldom worth the cost. Although our hometown is often cited as one of the best coffee towns in America, the campus coffee bars are of poor quality and close at 4 p.m. At the end of the workday when one might like to carry on a conversation or just chat with whoever might be around and have a drink, we have to leave campus. Just as there is no coffeehouse to spend some time in during the day, there is no pub in which to unwind at the end of it.
The net result of all of this is that faculty members and administrators rarely interact without great effort or an unusual circumstance. Administrators commute just as we do. But like commuters to a separate company, they are mostly housed in their own building. We might converse with someone before a meeting or at the occasional event such as a retirement or celebration of newly tenured faculty. But that’s about it.
When put in this light, it is easy to see why faculty members don’t trust administrators or often even other faculty members. Fundamentally, we don’t know each other as people. We get electronic memos from administrators regularly, and they give us speeches a few times a year, but generally speaking, that is the extent of our communication. This is not a healthy campus culture, as it fosters distrust and misunderstandings. In fact, it makes it harder to move the campus forward, and the time saved by not fostering relationships is wasted in confrontation at every initiative.
Is there a solution to this situation? The campus functions well as a city for students, yet it also needs to function, at least to some extent, as a city for faculty members and administrators. We suggest that an architectural commitment to, if not full citizenship, then, at the least, simple sociability might be a starting place.
Of course, changes in architecture would require resources, which, in turn, would require commitment by administrators and collaboration with faculty members. So, where are the places where such conversations might begin? Perhaps those most humble and common toadstools in the academic garden: the Facilities Planning Committee, the Space Committee or whatever they call it at your institution, where faculty members, administrators, staff members and students meet the bright-eyed designers of our various campuses. We say flood the zone with communitarian activists who envision our campuses as something other than mere workplaces.
The stakes here are high and not merely aesthetic. If we continue to design campuses like cities in which the faculty have no stake in citizenship, then we will remain commuters into a city with no place for us and behaving like suburbanites. We will continue to lack shared values and generally mistrust each other. For colleges to evolve in a healthy manner -- and we do need to evolve -- it will take a collaborative effort and increased interaction among all campus constituents.
Thomas J. Pfaff is a professor of mathematics and Robert Sullivan is an associate professor of communication studies at Ithaca College.