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Humanities departments are suffering from a decade of declining majors and enrollments, plus “formidable” new pressures stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. The need for effective strategies to recruit students to the humanities has therefore “never been clearer,” according to a new report from the National Humanities Alliance.

The study isn’t necessarily a clarion call, however. It’s more of a trumpeting of the many ways departments are already actively attempting to attract students to their ranks. The NHA’s hope is that their collected on-the-ground accounts will help more programs grow, improve and break myths about what humanities majors learn and go on to do with their lives.

“The report is really a testament to the creativity and resourcefulness of the humanities community,” said Scott Muir, project director for NHA's Study the Humanities initiative. “We were confident we would find compelling initiatives but have been particularly pleased with the variety of approaches surfaced.”

Not Waving the White Flag

Muir said he and his colleagues knew that humanists were working to create new curricula demonstrating the “professional, personal and social value of humanities education,” for instance. But they were struck by “both the breadth and depth of the curricular innovations” they found via their research. These include problem-based and experiential learning approaches, programs that highlight professional applications and marketable skills and efforts to engage local cultures, histories and community partners, Muir said.

“Snapshots” and more detailed case studies, which include faculty member perspectives, abound. Davidson College, for instance, took a “moribund,” Western Civilization-style first-year humanities course and “resurrected” it, organized around themes such as revolution or the body. Enrollment numbers grew from 18 in 2016 to 99 in 2020. Philosophers at Le Moyne College worked with faculty members from professional programs to develop courses on ethical issues encountered in law, medicine and business. These philosophers also established a minor in ethics, values and professional life. The University of Arizona doubled the number of first-year intended humanities majors in 2019 due in large part to a new applied humanities major.

Bradley Herling, chair of history, philosophy and religious studies at Marymount Manhattan College, is quoted as follows: “Being open to building programs that cross boundaries (e.g., Literature and Media, Social Work, Urban Ecology/Public Health, Writing) has led to institutional support, resources, and in a couple of cases, new hires.”

Beyond curriculum, some institutions are employing student ambassadors for the humanities. The Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan recently formed an Undergraduate Engagement Group. Members are involved in events such as the High Stakes Culture Series, which offers analysis of contemporary cultural conflicts in the news (think the removal of Confederate monuments and taking-a-knee protests in professional sports). The history department at Loyola Marymount University involves majors in its Study History campaign and redecorated its campus space to welcome students. According to the report, this department saw a 60 percent decline in majors from 2011 to 2017 and has seen a 35 percent increase in majors and 120 percent increase in minors in the last three years.

In one example of how cross-university partnerships can help advance the humanities, Georgia State University’s Humanities Inclusivity Program provides humanities majors from underrepresented groups opportunities for intellectual enrichment, professional development and community. The Center for the Advancement of Students and Alumni helps with the program and encourages participating students to continue their studies in graduate school. Program participants get paid research assistantships and access to workshops and seminars in preparation for graduate school. Brandeis University has bundled existing student aid into Humanities Fellowship packages. Numerous universities recommend peer mentorship programs.

‘What Makes Sense on Your Campus?’

Given ongoing trends in the humanities, the NHA began surveying faculty members and administrators about the challenges they faced and any recruitment strategies they’d adopted. The alliance piloted a formal survey in 2018 that yielded 72 responses and, given the interest among respondents, fielded a revised Humanities Recruitment Survey in 2019. The effort yielded more than 400 responses from over 300 institutions, providing valuable data that make up much of the report.

Ultimately, Muir said that recruitment success “seems not so much about identifying a silver-bullet strategy as finding the optimal mix of strategies that fit your institutional context.”

The new report is nevertheless divided into overarching themes that emerged: articulating career pathways, curricular innovations, cultivating a “marketing mind-set” and fostering humanities identity and community. Each chapter presents “a wide menu of options to draw upon rather than a prescribed approach,” Muir said, and “we explicitly encourage readers to consider how they might combine strategies.”

“The question is, ‘What makes sense on your campus?’” he continued.

Laura G. Eldred, assistant dean and professor of English at Lebanon Valley College, says in the report that her home department maintained a healthy number of majors and sustained enrollments, in part by researching graduates’ career outcomes and then advertising them to students and potential students. Eldred and her colleagues found that alumni had found success in a wide variety of career fields and many cases became organizational leaders. Lebanon Valley’s English department then created postcards and posters about their findings, as well as a brief video with alums’ actual job titles. The program also has an Instagram account.

Eldred said last week that faculty members “do have a responsibility to help prospective, current and graduated students in their department understand the skills that their education delivers and the varied possible outcomes for people within the field.”

She added, “We have wonderful career outcomes in English, but there is also a countervailing cultural myth of the unemployed humanities major. We need to counter that and help students see -- through specific examples, not just generalizations -- that their English degree can lead to a wide variety of rewarding careers.”

To Market (a Department) or Not to Market …

Robert Machado, chair of humanities at Lebanon Valley, said he hoped that marketing a department is not “the essential work” of the faculty, which is much more about helping students grow, take risks, collaborate, contribute and negotiate life's complexities. Yet without effectively “capturing and conveying” what a program does and means, and without sharing outcomes, departments “risk being vulnerable to pernicious cultural narratives -- often suspicious of degrees in the humanities -- which tend to be very limited or false,” he added.

Machado said reaching out to alumni to find out what they're doing now feels natural, in that it helps build “an ever-growing community” between the department and its graduates. Yet the work is time- and resource-intensive. So institutional investment may be necessary for this work to be sustainable, he said.

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said history departments “should be actively recruiting students, and they do.” The association has helped by facilitating online conversations and seminars on recruitment, while many departments supplement the AHA's Careers for History Majors publication with visits and testimonials from alumni, Grossman said. The AHA also offers a Department Advocacy Toolkit.

“There's no reason for professors not to help undergraduate students realize that a history major prepares a student for multiple career paths,” Grossman added. “The AHA and its members pay considerable attention to not only the value of a history major, and of history courses to students in other majors, but also how we can best communicate that value to students.”

Paula Krebs, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said the organization is “constantly impressed at the kinds of programs we're seeing in language and literature departments that tackle head-on the question of recruiting students to their majors.” Some do so by showcasing the careers of successful alumni, “and those stories are always compelling, especially to parents of prospective students,” she continued. “But we have also seen departments that work hard at connecting the dots for students, helping them actively shape a career path for themselves rather than giving them roadmaps to particular careers.” 

Like the AHA, the MLA has offered workshops in this area, including ones featuring language departments that have successfully increased enrollments by building connections with with area businesses that value multilingualism. Krebs said the MLA has helped chairs help faculty members because better advisers to students, “working with them to identify the skills, values and perspectives they got from their major and also to identify their own inclinations and to connect them to possible career paths.” Reforming graduate education to prepare Ph.D. candidates for a range of jobs is another piece of this, as this knowledge helps those students who do end up working as professors better teach and mentor their own students. 

An Issue of Equity

Helping students understand the career possibilities from humanities degrees is “especially important if humanities programs want to recruit students of color, Pell Grant recipients, and first-generation college-goers,” Krebs also said. “Humanities majors simply cannot become the majors for students who don't have student loan debt, students who have the luxury to pursue their passion without worrying about what happens after graduation.” 

Krebs added, “Our departments have to make it clear that students who love language and literature should major in language and literature -- that what they get from those majors can shape a good life for them after graduation. This focus on career possibilities is, above all, an equity issue.”

How should a department measure success in recruitment? Majors are most often valued by institutions, especially in academic prioritization efforts. But departments say their enrollment numbers speak to their contributions to general education curricula, as well.

Muir said there are ”certainly successes that many humanities departments can point to, even if the number of majors has fallen.” It’s common to hear that a humanities department has lost majors but made “huge gains” in terms of minors, he continued.

In most cases, Muir said a “dual approach” seems best: strengthening the case for the major or minor while designing certificates, interdisciplinary collaboration and electives “that appeal to students majoring in other areas of study. We see these strategies as mutually reinforcing rather than at odds with one another.”

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