UC Irvine experiments with a new graduate degree and postdoc hybrid program

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UC Irvine moves toward a system in which doctorates can be earned in five years, half the norm for these fields at many institutions. Some departments embrace plan; they fear impact on dissertations and on adjuncts.

New MLA analysis sheds light on the much-discussed humanities job market

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New MLA analysis sheds light on the much-bemoaned job market for humanities Ph.D.s.

Analysis says humanities Ph.D.s get take longer in coursework than dissertations

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New analysis suggests that time to degree for Ph.D.s may not be as lengthy as some assume, and that the key to shorter humanities doctorates may be coursework, not the dissertation.

Positive reports for humanities earnings, art school job prospects

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Two separate reports show evidence of humanities and arts majors finding success in the professional world.

Survey finds stability in humanities departments

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Survey finds departments and numbers of faculty positions more stable than is widely assumed, and policies on use of digital materials for promotion absent from most institutions.

In evaluating digital humanities, enthusiasm may outpace best practices

Digital Humanities
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Language and literature scholars have embraced technology in their research, but can they win tenure on it?

The humanities must work to promote their worth to the public (essay)

At a town hall campaign stop in South Carolina, Jeb Bush recently singled out an interesting group for attack: psychology, philosophy and liberal arts majors. He said:

“When a student shows up, they [their college or university] ought to say, ‘Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that's great, it's important to have liberal arts … but realize, you're going to be working a Chick-fil-A.’”

In the week since, Bush has drawn some well-deserved ire for his remarks. But those of us in the humanities would be deluding ourselves if we didn’t admit that we have a serious image problem. Policy makers like Bush have completely bought into the notion that a STEM degree is the only way to get a good job. If the humanities are going to reclaim the narrative, we have to work together and fight to promote our worth to the public.

We have a lot of catching up to do. For the past 20 years, American education policy has singularly promoted the science, technology, engineering and math fields, which has had a devastating impact on the arts and humanities. As a result, we have seen declining investments in non-STEM fields -- always paltry by contrast -- and shrinking student enrollments. Some universities have shuttered entire programs in the arts and humanities.

Worse, this has promoted a popular idea that degrees in non-STEM and nonbusiness fields are “useless” -- that building tech and selling tech are the only ways to ensure your financial future. This is in spite of mounting numbers of studies that indicate that America does not have a shortage of scientists and that a STEM degree does not ensure a better chance of employment or higher wages.

We in non-STEM fields have been slow to assert ourselves. Not enough of us have argued aggressively for the utility of our discipline, and those who have, such as the History Relevance Campaign and the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences (who drafted the excellent “The Heart of the Matter” report), have been fighting largely alone rather than as part of a coordinated, organized movement.

If we are to save our disciplines from irrelevance -- from the realm of the dilettante or hobbyist -- the answer is not to show our complementary utility to STEM fields (as advocates of “STEAM” have). Instead, we must rethink the common threads that our disciplines have to offer and how we present ourselves and our subjects. We should take a page from the STEM advocates’ playbook and argue the case for our disciplines vigorously, both in the public arena and to policy makers at the local, state and national levels.

STEM’s Rise

The focus on science has its roots in a Cold War mentality. In 1957, as the United States rose to the challenge that Sputnik presented, science education leaped to the forefront of the national consciousness. Being “competitive” internationally wasn’t just about economics anymore, it meant defeating the Soviets. This represented an existential crisis that rests at the bottom of our current conversations about STEM.

In the late 1990s, the National Science Foundation rebranded their fields as “STEM.” Since then, proponents of STEM education have presented it as the key to attaining a high-paying job and fixing the economy, and they have found a receptive audience. In 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science (now called the Committee on Science, Space and Technology) asked the National Academies to “conduct an assessment of America’s ability to compete and prosper in the 21st century.” Their solution, which they published in the apocalyptically named “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” was an aggressive program of funding for STEM education as a way to ensure “quality jobs” for Americans. President George W. Bush then announced his American Competitiveness Initiative, aimed at promoting a STEM education agenda, which was superseded in 2007 by the America COMPETES Act.

Since the crash of 2008, anxiety about the future -- both personal and national -- has driven people further toward STEM. In addition to reauthorizing the COMPETES act in 2010, President Obama created his own STEM education program, Educate to Innovate. Now, even Sesame Street has created its own STEM education initiatives.

For students, the appeal of STEM education is understandable. College costs have ballooned, and job prospects have shrunk. Shouldering five- and six-figure student debts, they view college pragmatically and are attracted to the myth of a straight path into a lucrative career.

The problem for the arts and humanities is clear. As the American Academy of Sciences wrote in their 2014 funding report, even at its highest (in 2012), “spending for humanities research equaled 0.55% of the amount dedicated to science and engineering RD.” Congressional appropriations for the National Endowment for the Humanities dropped in the 1990s and have stayed flat or decreased since then. Enrollment in arts and humanities majors at leading universities has plummeted. And, heaping on even more financial injury, in 2012, Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed “differentiated tuition,” where those studying in STEM fields would pay less than those in disciplines that were not “strategic.”

How to Argue Our Worth Better

The response from scholars in the humanities has been fragmented. Some bristle at conceiving of their disciplines in terms of careers prepared for or skills taught. For them, the value of the arts and humanities is inherent: it leads people to live fuller, better-informed and more satisfying lives.

However, in the face of the fears of our students, their parents and public-policy makers who determine funding priorities -- and the easy answers that STEM proponents provide -- such a position is no longer sufficient. We must have better unifying principles and communicate them simply and forcefully in the public square. We must be better at showing the real, practical applications of what we do and argue not just for the inherent value of our disciplines but also their utility on the job market.

The unifying principle within STEM subjects is that they are, at their cores, focused on objects and objectivity. Though many STEM fields require significant creativity and intuition, they are fundamentally built on an objective approach to problems and solutions derived from data. Technology and engineering are, at their core, about designing and building things -- whether they be bridges or computer systems -- that are intended to perform a function and can be evaluated accordingly.

There is a different unifying principle for most non-STEM disciplines -- among them English, history, politics and civics, languages and literatures, education, the arts, philosophy, psychology and sociology -- which I call the human disciplines. All of the subjects within human disciplines are fundamentally interested in people and with subjectivity. Our disciplines not only illustrate esoteric questions of the meaning and purpose of life but are also uniquely well suited to explore questions of how to live and work with other people. In practical terms, if the job requires being able to work with and understand people -- particularly those different from yourself -- these degrees can, and should, make you better suited for it. They promote empathy, and require students to regard problems, and people, with complexity and the understanding that no single answer is right.

These kinds of jobs exist in all walks of life and include CEOs, kindergarten teachers, judges, advertisers, curators, coaches, social workers and many others. They form the linchpin of our society. They not only drive our economy but also make our country a better place to live by having good, well-trained people doing these jobs.

And these jobs are not just lucrative; they offer meaningful work. Understanding how to work with and inspire people makes you better suited to organize those around you toward a common goal, to write, speak and think with power and clarity, and to improve the lives of others. And, in practical terms, these are the jobs that are the least likely to be automated away.

So the onus is on us, within the human disciplines, to organize, to step up in the public arena, to work together -- beyond the ivory towers of our colleges and universities -- to fight for our continued existence. The skills we have to offer are tangible. The jobs we prepare our students for are plentiful and meaningful. We have at least 20 years of catching up to do in making our case to the public, but our disciplines have well prepared us for the task.

Paul B. Sturtevant is a research associate in the Office of Policy and Analysis at the Smithsonian Institution. He received his Ph.D. in Medieval Studies. He regularly writes at The Public Medievalist and tweets at @publicmedieval.

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New data on what humanities majors earn

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Study agrees with conventional wisdom that they earn less majors in other fields, but challenges idea that they gain little (financially) from their degrees.

Column on event paying tribute to essayist George Scialabba

On Aug. 10, the City Council of Cambridge, Mass., passed, by unanimous vote, a resolution to which even the local media gave scant notice. But the document merits attention throughout the Republic of Letters, and quoting it at some length seems in order, since paraphrase would not do it justice:

“WHEREAS: George Scialabba is retiring on Aug. 31, 2015, from his job stationed in the basement of Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies, having diligently fulfilled the room scheduling needs of overpaid professors for 35 years; and

“WHEREAS: Scialabba has published over the same period nearly 400 essays, reviews and commentaries concerning literature, science, politics and morality from the perspectives of the bemused, the nonprivileged and the unsmug; and

“WHEREAS: To that end, Scialabba has spent thousands of hours pacing his apartment on Washington Avenue, gnashing his teeth over the sorry spectacle of American politics and the fearful mayhem of American capitalism, while himself hanging on by his fingertips,

“NOW THEREFORE LET IT BE RESOLVED: That the City of Cambridge hereby proclaims Sept. 10, 2015 ‘George Scialabba Day’ to honor Scialabba for staring unflinchingly into the abyss and reporting what he has found there in sensitive, true and graceful prose …”

In 2006, this column did its part to further the appreciation of George Scialabba by giving notice of Divided Mind, a sampler of his work in the form of a chapbook, issued by a small literary press called Pressed Wafer. Divided Mind was modest both in size and prize run, but it whetted enough readers’ appetites for the publisher to bring out What Are Intellectuals Good For? in 2009. Two more collections have appeared since then; a fourth volume is on its way. (All available through online retailers or the press itself.)

To continue with the Cambridge City Council proclamation, picking up where the ellipsis left off:

“RESOLVED: That the City of Cambridge encourages those of its residents who still practice the habit of reading to place their collective tongues in their collective cheeks and to celebrate the achievements of George Scialabba on Sept. 10, 2015; and finally

“RESOLVED: That the city clerk is hereby requested to forward a suitably embossed copy of this resolution to the Committee to Preserve George Scialabba and Others Like Him (If Any).”

And so Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich will be among the featured speakers tomorrow night at “Three Cheers for George Scialabba,” to be held at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. Tickets for the event were sold out as of Sunday. And that was before the Boston Globe’s prominently placed feature on the event. (Large blocks of tickets were purchased by well-read but ruthless scalpers, according to the rumor I just thought up.)

The Committee to Preserve George Scialabba consists, as far as I can tell, mainly of John Summers, editor of The Baffler, where Scialabba is a contributing editor. In an email note he describes the planned course of Thursday night’s festivities as a series of toasts by speakers -- running “anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes or so” each, followed by a hoisting of the glasses -- which will be interspersed with the screening of a video consisting of tributes by friends and readers who can’t attend. It will be made available online the next day.

“The toasts will branch out from [George’s] person,” Summers says, “into the larger, collective issues and situations of contemporary intellectual life. We will focus on the persistence of independent-minded writing and thinking outside the professions and institutions -- the sort of people who don't need to ask permission.” (Summers has been named by Scialabba as his literary executor and will presumably handle the Library of America edition of his essays.)

So much acclaim would swell the heads of most people. My impression from speaking with Scialabba by phone is that he is happy but embarrassed and will likely remain in that state for the duration. As a young man he was a member of Opus Dei -- a Roman Catholic organization primarily for laymen, known for its unyielding advocacy of theological tradition. And although studying intellectual history as a Harvard University undergraduate eventually cost him his religious faith (“the foundations had been crumbling all through my junior and senior years”), it seems that the years of quasi-monastic discipline mortified the ego right out of him.

The experience of leaving a closed but rigorous moral and intellectual worldview left him in a position that has been difficult and, at times, painful, but also rewarding, at least for his readers. It taught him “that ideas matter,” the historian Rick Perlstein writes in the preface to Scialabba’s next book. “That they are a matter of life and death …. He believes that achieving freedom, whatever the generals on CNN and the editorialists of The Wall Street Journal say, is neither a function of American arms or the sacred working out of the laws of supply and demand. It is caused by human beings exercising their reason, autonomously, from the ground up.”

The title of that forthcoming volume is Low, Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews, 1980-2015. The indicated span happens to coincide with the years Scialabba has been a clerical worker at Harvard, managing the building that houses the Center for International Affairs and a number of smaller research centers. Part of the legend that circulates among his admirers concerns a file cabinet in his basement office that was filled with all the writing he'd done when not busy scheduling room usage or checking on the progress of air-conditioning repairs.

It turns out that not only is the story true but that the files are still there. Clearing them out remains his last workplace-related chore. He says there are no unfinished books among them, or manuscripts for posthumous discovery -- and that with Low, Dishonest Decades, most of the work he’d want preserved will be between covers, apart from a few recent essays. I was disappointed to hear that, at least initially.

But now he has a good pension (“thanks to the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers,” he stresses) and more time. So let me end by repeating what I said in the video that will be shown on Thursday night: while the world is not exactly crying out for more memoirs, an exception can be made for the memoirs of someone who joined Opus Dei as a teenager and read his way out of it. The tributes to George Scialabba will soon be over; let his late-life flourishing begin!

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George Scialabba

Analysis considers contradictions in high school and college students' interest in humanities

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New analysis seeks to explain the declining interest of high school students in studying the humanities in college, and a reversal once they arrive.


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