Defending the Humanities

More and more seems to be expected of university faculty in all areas of our academic lives—research, teaching, and service. This is nowhere more true than in a humanities department, where we’re under constant pressure to attract more students to our classes and majors; develop new collaborations with STEM/STEAM fields; and generally defend our relevance to the institution’s mission. The faculty in my department are showing clear signs of fatigue in this environment of chronic crisis. As Chair, what can I do to keep up my colleagues’ energy, enthusiasm, and above all commitment to departmental service?—Professor STEAM-ed

Dear Professor STEAM-ed:

The devaluation of the humanities in general and literary and language study in particular is a painful topic for all of us. The belief that science and technology education is more “practical” or opens up more job opportunities than, say, an English major has been proven again and again to be untrue (e.g., AAC&U; Robert Matz). It is beyond me how the study of literature and culture is imagined as “irrelevant,” as though the ability to read carefully, write cogently, analyze complexly, and inhabit worlds very different from the one in which we currently live is not at the core of the mission of academic institutions.

But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, and my fulminating isn’t going to help you. My first thought is that you not bother trying to convince your administration that your field is valuable to students, the institution, and the world. Rather, let other people do that for you. But first they have to know what you do. I think collaborations with STE(A)M colleagues are a terrific idea, and could be beneficial for everyone involved. Many colleges encourage interdisciplinary team-taught courses that cross over very different fields. This can take many forms. In my research I’ve found some fascinating combinations: a philosopher and a biologist on a course on changing ideas about evolution and its relation to theories of free will; an epidemiologist and a literary scholar on the meanings of madness; a biologist and a medievalist on zombies. You might pair up with a health sciences department to offer a course in narrative medicine, or with someone from your pre-law program to create a class in law and rhetoric. This requires a fair amount of work for your faculty, but it will put your department on the radar of departments that are actually listened to, as well, possibly, as making them excited about teaching.

Do you have access to information about your alums? Former majors are the best advocates for your department — they’ve seen in their post-college life how valuable the major has been for them. In my department we put together a survey for English major graduates asking them what they valued most about their time in the major, and how well it prepared them for their work lives. The results were even more positive than we had imagined: more than 90 percent responded that they felt well-prepared for the work world by the skills they learned in the major. And the word “alum” is a kind of talisman for administrators. Even better, organize a careers panel of former majors and advertise it widely among undergraduates. Many of them just don’t know that the stories about impoverished French majors aren’t true.

Finally, prospective majors need to know what your department does. They need to know that unlike in enormous chemistry lectures, in your classes they’ll be taught by professors who know their names and who will work with them on their writing, and they’ll be in classes in which their ideas are valued and encouraged. How about an open house in which faculty are in their offices and will meet with any student that comes by, to tell them about what they teach, and the structure of the major? Have food and drinks, decorate the hallway, advertise aggressively, and make it fun.

Seeing the task as fighting against hostile naysayers is the fastest route to disaffection and discouragement. Your administrators need to know that their beliefs about the humanities are just plain wrong, and there’s the data to back that up. Show them the information and then enlist allies to advocate for you. At the very least, you’ll feel better about yourselves.

The Chair

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