Complicated Picture for the Humanities

By some measures, the humanities are in decline. By others, their death has been overstated. A new report offers some data from before the pandemic.

May 18, 2020
 
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The decline of the humanities in higher education has been much lamented by some. From 2012 to 2015, the number of undergraduate humanities degrees earned dropped nearly 10 percent. Countless articles (many of them disputed) instruct young people to forgo a degree in the humanities if they're interested in gainful employment.

A new report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences provides data that complicate the picture of the declining disciplines. The report uses data from both the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (a government census of institutions) and a survey completed by humanities department chairs and administrators in 2017, before the current coronavirus pandemic and crisis.

As far as defining the humanities, researchers looked specifically at 12 disciplines: art history, classics, communication, English, folklore, history, history of science, languages and literatures other than English, linguistics, musicology, philosophy and religion. This is the third iteration of the study, and this specific report saw the inclusion of four disciplines that encompass both humanities and social sciences, those being American studies, race/ethnic studies, women's/gender studies and anthropology.

Enrollment and Careers

Of the 12 original disciplines, four saw significant declines in the average number of undergraduate degrees granted from 2012 to 2017, but only two (English and languages other than English) saw a decline in the average number of graduate students. Researchers also found the average number of undergrads completing humanities minors remains mostly unchanged since 2012.

The survey also looked at career preparation in the humanities. Over half of departments surveyed rated the career services available to students as "good" or "very good," with departments at research universities rating their services the most negatively. History of science departments offered their career services the most negative evaluation among departments, with 42 percent rating the services "poor" or "very poor."

Researchers found that at every degree level, departments tend to offer but not require career-related activities such as internships or career coursework. Among bachelor's programs, 13 percent of departments required an internship, and 20 percent required occupational coursework or workshops.

Faculty and Tenure

While the adjunctification of faculty has been the cause of much concern, data suggested that from 2012 to 2017 there was no significant increase in the number or share of non-tenure-track faculty per department. In 2017, 62 percent of humanities faculty at four-year universities were tenured or tenure track.

In tenure decisions, over 75 percent of departments ranked teaching as essential. Publications were considered less important, with only 54 percent rating them as essential in tenure decisions, though that number went up to 90 percent at research institutions. Only 11 percent of departments said public humanities activities were essential or very important in tenure decisions.

The Digital

The study also examined the incorporation of digital learning into the humanities. The survey suggested that only 30 percent of humanities departments offered a fully online course in the 2016-17 academic year. Fifteen percent offered a hybrid course that year. These numbers varied by discipline, with philosophy and communication being most likely to offer online courses. American studies and history of science were the least likely to offer online or hybrid courses. English and women's/gender studies offered the highest average number of online courses per department.

Though the digital humanities has been the subject of much attention, only about one-third of departments had a center or lab dedicated to digital humanities research. Less than 20 percent of departments offered a seminar on digital methods, and only about a quarter had a faculty member specializing in digital humanities. Folklore, history of science and linguistics (disciplines the survey found more likely to be at research universities) had the highest overall engagement with the digital humanities.

Over 1,400 departments chairs and administrators responded to the survey. For the original 12 disciplines, only departments at institutions included in the 2012 study were sampled, even though some other institutions began granting new humanities degrees. Thus, the sample was not nationally representative and the findings do not describe all degree-granting humanities departments at American institutions. The Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics administered the survey and analyzed and weighed data.

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