Meeting the Chair's Challenges

While arguments and counterarguments fly back and forth about the value of the humanistic enterprise, department chairs might be left wondering how to preserve and promote their departments, writes Timothy S. Huebner.

March 17, 2016

The debate over the purpose and place of the humanities in American higher education rages on. Although the humanities have long had a harder time justifying themselves, the recession, the advent of digital technologies and the increasing ascendancy of the so-called STEM disciplines seem to have created a perfect storm, making matters even more difficult for those of us who teach Shakespeare and the Bhagavad Gita, American history and German philosophy. Recent data from Humanities Indicators, a project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, showed that degrees in the humanities represented only about 10 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded in 2013 -- the smallest share since 1988 and well below the historic high (17 percent) recorded in 1967.

While arguments and counterarguments fly back and forth about the value of the humanistic enterprise, department chairs might be left wondering how to preserve and promote their departments in this increasingly challenging environment. Here’s some practical advice aimed at ensuring the continued vitality of our disciplines:

Start with the basics. The times have changed, but that does not mean that the fundamentals are any less important. In fact, they are more important than ever. There is no substitute for hiring good people and offering the mentoring necessary to ensure that they earn tenure and promotion. Effective teaching and research still matter most at the end of the day, so don’t lose sight of your department’s fundamental purpose. The time you invest in your colleagues -- listening to their complaints, observing their classes, discussing their research and understanding each person’s unique gifts -- all pay dividends. The more your faculty colleagues grow and develop as teachers and scholars, and the happier they are as human beings, the more favor your department will win in the eyes of students and administrators.

Practice transparency. If you listen and support your colleagues, you will also have to be honest with them about the challenges your department is facing. Not everyone is attuned to the changing environment in which humanities departments find themselves, so you will need to do a lot of explaining. If your colleagues are like mine, they are probably more interested in their own teaching and research than they are in the department’s assessment plan or the status of its budget. But you’ll need to share with them what they need to know in order for you and your colleagues to make sound decisions and plot a future course. If the dean’s office is telling you that there’s a chance your department will lose a faculty position when the next retirement comes, you need to convey that information to your colleagues. They will appreciate your candor, gain a greater understanding of the job you do and, ideally, support you when you discuss the need to increase enrollments and number of majors in your department -- so that you can retain that budget line.

Develop new products. You and your faculty members will need to experiment with new courses, teaching arrangements, interdisciplinary initiatives and types of credentials to offer to your students. Think of these as products that you are offering in the increasingly competitive arena of higher education. Your department’s ability to respond to student demand will make a difference.

A few years ago, I began offering a course on public history, which I attached to the internships that we had with our community partners: local museums, archives and historic preservation organizations. At the time, it was simply a way to add structure -- and academic heft -- to our internships. But because of the enthusiastic student response, our department is now developing a certificate in public history, a combination of courses and experiential learning opportunities. It’s a new endeavor, driven mostly by students’ interest in museum careers, and a new product that I can talk about -- along with our prelegal internships and our undergraduate research journal editorships -- when I meet prospective students and majors.

Embrace assessment. Because humanities faculty members are often unfamiliar with and even disdainful of educational jargon, most view assessment as a waste of time and a chore -- a task only to be carried out because administrators and accrediting agencies demand it. In a recent discussion on the chairs’ Listserv of the American Historical Association, for instance, some people urged chairs to “fight” or “push back” against the culture of assessment that seems ever more pervasive.

But here are my questions: Why would we not want to define what our students learn? Why would we not want to know if they are actually learning what we say we want them to learn? Why would we not want to compile this data and attempt to use it to get better at what we do? As the public increasingly wonders what we do and why it costs so much, assessment will become more important. And, frankly, we in academe could stand to be a little more open about what we are doing. Assessment helps us to show the world that, yes, what we do in the classroom really does make a difference. Intransigence on the subject will only make us appear aloof and out of touch.

Know the numbers. We live in an age of big data, and that means that your dean or provost knows -- or can know -- exactly what is going on in your department. What courses in your department achieve the highest enrollments? What professors attract the most students to their classes? Who is the easiest grader? Are you maximizing the utilization of your classroom space? Is your department serving enough students to continue to justify its faculty positions?

All this and more is available to your administration through its institutional research office, and you better believe that they are reviewing the numbers. You should do the same. While many of us in the humanities avoid data like the plague and revel in the ambiguity of things that cannot be quantified, we exist within data-gathering institutions that will often make data-driven decisions. You might as well become proficient in the numbers, so that when the administration seeks to convert the philosophy seminar room into a psychology lab, you’ll be prepared to make the best possible case -- based on how many philosophy students attend classes and events in the room -- about why that room is essential to the work of your department.

Go digital. Humanists in general need to be more open to the use of technology. That does not mean that you need to go along your administration’s wild-eyed plans to convert all of your courses to MOOCs or to remove all of the books from the library. But it does mean that you will need to learn more about blended learning initiatives, Geographic Information Systems, social media platforms and -- most importantly -- digital humanities projects.

The National Endowment for the Humanities and private foundations rightly believe that digital humanities offer unprecedented opportunities to present the humanities to the public, and your department would be well served by exploring the possibilities of reaching new audiences, including prospective students and parents as well as potential donors. If we acknowledge that digital is not at war with high academic standards or peer review, we can avoid the hyperenthusiasm often associated with technological change while building sustainable digital initiatives that truly reflect the complexity and integrity of our disciplines.

Our department, for example, is currently taking the lead in building Digital Shelby Foote, a digital humanities project based on the Shelby Foote Collection, located in our college’s archives. The work we are doing gives history students hands-on opportunities to transcribe the Southern writer’s daily diary entries while at the same creating a digital archive that will be of use to students and researchers for years to come.

Become an expert in marketing. Apart from starting with the basics, this might be the most important lesson of all. It is no longer good enough to go about our business of teaching our courses, doing our research and desiring to be left alone. We will all need to become more adept at explaining our research, promoting our courses, recruiting prospective students, attracting new majors and discussing why our disciplines matter. Even at liberal arts colleges such as my own, the humanities find themselves under increasing pressure to prove their worth and put students in the seats. You will need to think about which courses in your department help you to recruit majors, how to build a schedule that is most likely to draw students and how to use digital media and printed materials to help promote what you and your colleagues are doing in your department.

Gimmicks can help, such as the free mugs we started distributing to majors a few years back with the words “Rhodes College” on one side and “Department of History” on the other. (We purchased them in bulk for about $2 apiece.) But data can help, too. For example, we worked with the college’s alumni office to find out what our majors actually do after they graduate. The result was a pie chart that I have posted on my office door, on our website and in our printed marketing materials. Based on data stretching back to 1970, the chart shows -- as I suspect any such chart of any humanities discipline would show -- that our graduates end up practicing law, going into business, working in the nonprofit sector and a doing a number of other things. Because it is a chart of many colors, it quickly disabuses students of the notion that majoring in history necessarily means teaching history. When parents ask their sons and daughters what they plan on doing with a history major, our students have data to back up their responses.

Of course, free mugs and pie charts will not by themselves help attract majors. But they can assist you in promoting the department and increasing interest among students. In the end, the best marketing strategy is to keep your door open, talk to students, engage with your administration and become friends with the folks in the admissions office.

In an age of economic anxiety, digital disruption and STEM domination, department chairs in the humanities will need to work a little harder than chairs in most other disciplines. Now more than ever, our departments need enthusiastic public advocates who will help ensure the continued vitality and relevance of our disciplines.


Timothy S. Huebner, Sternberg Professor of History, is in his sixth year as chair of the department of history at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.


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