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A close-up picture of a hand holding a magnifying glass over the word "Humanities." The word stands out as magnified against a sea of other words.

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The humanities might not-too-facetiously be labeled the black sheep of academia. After all, the humanities are frequently characterized as being in crisis and, since 2008, have suffered massive hemorrhaging in the numbers of new majors. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities have made cuts to humanities departments, and the financial exigencies of the pandemic have only made the situation worse.

Yet the humanities are crucial, even—or especially—in a world that prioritizes science, technology, engineering and math disciplines. Some tech industry failures in recent years likely could have been minimized, or potentially even avoided, had executives and engineers received better training in the sorts of soft skills that the humanities provide. To give just one notable example, Facebook’s tendency to play fast and loose with user data privacy indicates a need for more ethics education among tech executives.

To put it simply, an applied humanities approach is needed in STEM education.

Applied Humanities

Since the term “applied humanities” is not especially common, some explanation may be helpful. Applied humanities education prepares students to use humanities knowledge and methods in practice rather than only in theory. As the University of Arizona’s Department of Public and Applied Humanities puts it, the goal is “public enrichment and the direct and tangible improvement of the human condition.” While this goal undoubtedly involves “intrahumanities” outputs like museum and exhibit curation or textual editing, public enrichment through the humanities can also be pursued through science and engineering curricula.

The direct goal of much science education is improving the human condition, such as CRISPR developments opening up possibilities for gene therapies. Similarly, good engineering seeks to improve the human condition, like the LEED-certified building methods that minimize negative impacts on the environment.

Since the humanities concern themselves with the human experience in all its facets, they can offer much to STEM endeavors, and applied humanities approaches have been implemented for many decades. One of the most established applied humanities pursuits is applied linguistics, which has existed as a field of study since about 1948. Another useful and growing example is that of the medical humanities, which provide medical practitioners with training that can help them interact more effectively with patients and navigate the emotional impact of their profession.

While applied approaches might be less widespread or established in other humanities fields, they are just as needed. In part, they are needed because the skills and knowledge of humanities scholars can help students in a multiplicity of fields, including STEM disciplines, to improve their understanding of their subject matter and how it connects to society at large.

Example: Fiction for Specific Purposes

One example of practical pedagogical guidance that uses humanities content and approaches is fiction for specific purposes (FSP, previously called literature for specific purposes). This approach uses fiction to meet particular pedagogical needs. FSP operates within six main domains: ethics, critical thinking, creativity, narrative competence, range of perspective and intercultural competence. In other words, the study of fiction can be used to teach any of these elements, not only in humanities courses but also within a STEM course of study.

One example of FSP is a course I taught in STEM programs at both the bachelor’s and master’s levels at Chalmers University of Technology, Emerging Technology Ethics Through Fiction. The goal of the course was to use fiction to spur ethical reflection on technological developments. In this course, participants read short stories about different emerging technologies—such as 3-D printing, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence—and engaged in discussion and reflection on the ethics of these technologies. While some of the technologies in the fiction already exist, others are speculative. Students talked about how extant tech already shapes society but also made scientifically informed forecasts about the direction that developing technologies should take.

Why is fiction particularly useful in such a class? Students can feel freer to discuss their ideas when an ethical issue arises with fiction, because fiction’s degree of remove from reality releases them from aiming for expected or sanctioned answers (as might happen when case studies are used, for example). Importantly, the course also underscores how they can use fiction as one means of establishing the habit of ethical reflection about their discipline.

Further Possibilities

This course I taught is an elective, but FSP courses could be compulsory courses, or they could be shorter units integrated into existing STEM courses. For instance, video game engineers could benefit from a course in narrative competence that teaches them theories of narrative structure, character development and emotional resonance in narratives. This kind of education could help them develop more innovative and engaging games. Automotive engineering students could widen their range of perspective through exercises in an FSP unit that ask them to probe the point of view of characters who differ greatly from themselves. Such thinking is essential for facilitating user-centered design, which asks engineers to envision a multiplicity of ways that users approach a technology.

Many different applied uses of fiction already exist, including the cultivation of empathy and the teaching of cultural competence to students planning to study overseas, just to name two. Additionally, while I have discussed fiction as an example of one area of applied humanities, many others exist, like using music to help teach physics or engineering principles.

Expanding the use of applied humanities will help students engage in knowledge transfer, “dezoning” knowledge. In other words, more applied humanities approaches could help students better understand that the knowledge from one of their courses can and should connect both to their other courses and to their professional experiences.

It may well be the case that the previously mentioned instance of Facebook failing to protect user privacy came, at least in part, from engineering education that teaches programming but does not always ask students to reflect on their work’s impact on society. While deep disciplinary knowledge and theoretical work is still crucial, a greater emphasis on the applied humanities could help demonstrate to a wider population how much the humanities have to offer.

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