Centering the Humanities

Humanities centers and institutes are key to improving the image of the humanities among the public and policy makers, writes Aaron R. Hanlon.

September 9, 2019
 
 
istock/exdez

The humanities crisis is multifaceted. It's a product of some developments beyond the control of students and faculty members in humanistic disciplines, as well as other developments we can more immediately influence. One of the problems we can actually solve is that many people outside academe have no idea what "the humanities" means in the first place.

When we speak of "the humanities," we're usually talking about disciplines that fall under an administrative division -- which can be confusing in itself. History, for example, is notionally considered a core humanities discipline, but in many institutions -- including mine, Colby College -- history is in the social sciences division. In other cases, people speak of the humanities and social sciences as if they're interchangeable. Sociology was one of the "humanities" disciplines that the recent "Sokal Squared" hoax targeted, though sociology is a social science discipline whose claims and quantitative methods typically look more like economics than classics. This is to say nothing of interdisciplinary fields, like women's and gender studies, which share humanistic and social scientific methods, or fields like music for which qualitative and quantitative analysis and performance are all important features.

To be fair, if we consider "STEM" as a label and a set of disciplines, the same kinds of challenges arise. It's no easier to describe why a pure mathematician should be in the same division as a botanist than to describe why English and philosophy belong under the same label. But when it comes to things like employment statistics, the public at large is quite happy to accept STEM and all that comes with it.

A recent Burning Glass and Strada Institute for the Future of Work study finds, for example, "STEM majors are least likely to face this [underemployment] problem. Only 30 percent of engineering and computer science majors are underemployed in their first job." The report goes on to note a "similar, but not as pronounced advantage" among graduates in the physical sciences and mathematics, as well as "communications and journalism, social sciences and foreign languages." And it says that "it would be tempting to conclude that there must be something inherently more employable about STEM majors, but experts who study labor markets caution against making such assumptions." In other words, when making the case for STEM, it's common to lead with favorable employment data for immediately applied fields like engineering and computer science, and then let the rest of the natural sciences and mathematics fade into the background.

The humanities, for its part, is apparently everything from putting on a play or creating a sculpture -- which relatively few people in English, history, philosophy, classics or religious studies has done or ever will -- to teaching Russian. Thus, there's a lot of public pressure on humanistic work that doesn't make a product people want. For now, at least, botanists are protected by the STEM impact narratives we can tell about structural engineering or path-breaking medical science, but we shouldn't expect the arts to have an analogous effect on the humanities. I wouldn't count on Hamilton increasing the demand for tenure lines in colonial American history.

We have to realize, then, that whatever incidental confusion arises from "the humanities" as a label will not be forgiven the same way the incoherence of STEM is forgiven. Unemployment rates for 25- to 29-year-old bachelor's degree holders in economics (4.1 percent), mathematics (3.9 percent) and psychology (3.5 percent) are higher than English language and literature (3.4 percent). Median salaries for those aged 25 to 59 for biology ($56,000) are closer to English ($53,000) than to chemical engineering ($96,000) or physics ($81,000). But even so, STEM cachet -- particularly the T and the E in that acronym -- means that a biology major researching the mating patterns of a rare Amazonian bird will not have to field the "So what are you gonna do with that?" question as often as an English major studying the 18th-century Atlantic book trade, a topic that sounds similarly esoteric but less "scientific."

Humanities Centers as Clearinghouses

So if we want to improve the image of the humanities among the public and policy makers, we need to focus on coherent statements and examples about what the humanities are and do. And I contend that humanities centers can and should be at the center of making "the humanities" coherent for audiences beyond scholars in those fields.

Two immediate objections to this idea come to mind. The first is that humanities centers were always part of a strategic mission to bolster the clout and improve the image of humanities disciplines both within and beyond the university -- and yet the humanities crisis persists. The second is that humanities centers are an expensive luxury, not an accessible solution for the vast majority of institutions.

As for the first objection, my interest is in shifting the mission and focus of humanities centers in ways commensurate with the new kinds of challenges we face today. And as for the second one, I agreed with that, too, until I attended a conference specifically designed for humanities centers at small colleges. What I saw changed my mind.

The conference, "Liberal Arts and the Humanities: Case Studies from Liberal Arts Colleges and Small Universities," hosted by the Center for the Arts and Humanities at Colby, was designed around case studies that made recent efforts at humanities centers at small institutions remarkably coherent and compelling. For example, a team of history faculty and students at Wake Forest University, supported by an Engaged Humanities Mellon Grant through the Wake Forest Humanities Institute, participated in a course on refugee resettlement in the Winston-Salem area. It allowed students to construct a crucial archive of records in partnership with a local refugee resettlement organization.

The course accomplished three specific things at the heart of making the humanities coherent and comprehensible for wider audiences:

  • It linked knowledge and skills taught in a humanistic discipline -- history -- to a real need in the world beyond academe.
  • It enabled students to connect specialist knowledge learned in the classroom to this wider challenge of refugee resettlement in the area.
  • It allowed the Humanities Institute at Wake Forest to demonstrate in concrete terms not only what it does for humanities faculty members and students at Wake Forest, but also what humanities faculty and students at Wake Forest can do for the broader university and community.

I learned, similarly, of how the Center for the Humanities at Grinnell College has facilitated a partnership between Grinnell faculty members and local school administrators. Meanwhile, the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute at Smith College brings clusters of students and faculty together from within and outside of the humanities, as Kahn Fellows, to work on a common project for as long as a semester or a full year.

I've suggested that one of the barriers to making what the humanities do more coherent for the public is often a lack of common understanding among academics across disciplines. To the extent humanities centers, like the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute, can create a framework for people in different fields to work collaboratively while teaching one another about their disciplinary approaches, our colleagues in the natural and social sciences can learn first-hand what humanistic work entails -- and what kinds of problems it's poised to solve.

At Colby, our Center for the Arts and Humanities hosts an annual humanities theme -- this year's is "Energy/Exhaustion" -- that integrates teaching and programming across disciplines and divisions at the college. The theme becomes a basis for course-development grants that help faculty members build anew or modify prior courses in relation to the theme. It becomes an inspiration for new performances and artistic development. And it assists faculty members and students in local community engagement.

Small, Local Changes of Attitude

I've provided examples of case studies from small but affluent institutions, but what also struck me when I attended this conference was how many attendees from institutions with far more limited financial resources had started or were starting humanities centers. When I speak to colleagues at wealthy institutions about the prospect of a humanities center, I hear one thing over and over again: what's a center without a building? In other words, the presumption is that to have a center you need an expensive capital project, a new building flush with offices and collaborative workspaces, an army of postdoctoral fellows, a budget to fly in experts from across the world, and a full-time staff to make it all happen. While it's certainly true that such resources expand the scope of what a humanities center can accomplish, it's also the case that humanities centers can be successful without expensive spaces. At the conference, I heard from faculty members who were running humanities centers out of a single office or preparing to pilot low-cost programs that would simply bring the faculty together across fields to think and write about their strategic mission within the institution.

I've ultimately learned from the Liberal Arts and the Humanities conference that humanities centers can not only be effective clearinghouses for making humanistic work coherent and visible beyond departments but also productive at different scales. If a center can make humanistic work coherent and tangible for no one but your institution's administrators or the students who are flirting with taking a humanities course yet skeptical of its value, that's already a victory. If a center has the capacity to run larger-scale programming that engages the public with celebrity speakers and expensive public humanities projects, more power to it.

But what's often overlooked is that small, local changes of attitude toward humanistic work -- changes made possible with a $10,000 annual budget instead of a $100,000 one -- are at the root of any large-scale shift in public perception. Our students are, after all, a significant part of the future public. And to the extent we can claim opportunities to convince our future public, we can begin to activate that large-scale shift right now.

Bio

Aaron R. Hanlon is an assistant professor of English at Colby College. His book, A World of Disorderly Notions, is available now from the University of Virginia Press.

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