Do Humanities Programs Encourage the Computational Illiteracy of Their Students?

I think the knee-jerk and obvious answer to my question is “No.”  I think if humanities profs were confronted with the question of whether their students should develop their abilities in math (or more broadly in math, science and technology), many or most would say Yes.  On the other hand, I read the following post from Robert Talbert at the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  It got me thinking just a bit about how and whether we in the humanities contribute to an anti-math attitude among our own students, if not in the culture as a whole.

I’ve posted here before about mathematics’ cultural problem, but it’s really not enough even to say “it’s the culture”, because kids do not belong to a single monolithic “culture”. They are the product of many different cultures. There’s their family culture, which as Shaughnessy suggests either values math or doesn’t. There’s the popular culture, whose devaluing of education in general and mathematics in particular ought to be apparent to anybody not currently frozen in an iceberg. (The efforts of MIT, DimensionU, and others have a steep uphill battle on their hands.)

And of course there’s the school culture, which itself a product of cultures that are out of kids’ direct control. Sadly, the school culture may be the toughest one to change, despite our efforts at reform. As the article says, when mathematics is reduced to endless drill-and-practice, you can’t expect a wide variety of students — particularly some of the most at-risk learners — to really be engaged with it for long. I think Khan Academy is trying to make drill-and-practice engaging with its backchannel of badges and so forth, but you can only apply so much makeup to an inherently tedious task before learners see through it and ask for something more.

via Can Math Be Made Fun? – Casting Out Nines – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This all rings pretty true to me.  There are similar versions of this in other disciplines.  In English, for instance, students unfortunately can easily learn to hate reading and writing through what they imbibe from popular culture or through what the experience in the school system.  For every hopeless math geek on television, there’s a reading geek to match.  Still and all, I wonder whether we in the humanities combat and intervene in the popular reputation of mathematics and technological expertise, or do we just accept it, and do we in fact reinforce it.

I think, for instance, of the unconscious assumption that there are “math people” and “English people”;  that is, there’s a pretty firmly rooted notion that people are born with certain proclivities and abilities and there is no point in addressing deficiencies in your literacy in other areas.  More broadly, I think we apply this to students, laughing in knowing agreement when they talk about coming to our humanities disciplines because they just weren’t math persons or a science persons, or groaning together in the faculty lounge about how difficult it is to teach our general education courses to nursing students or to math students.  As if our own abilities were genetic.

In high school I was highly competent in both math and English, and this tendency wasn’t all that unusual for students in the honors programs.  On the other hand, I tested out of math and never took another course in college, and none of my good humanistic teachers in college ever challenged and asked me to question that decision.  I was encouraged to take more and different humanities courses (though, to be frank, my English teachers were suspicious of my interest in philosophy), but being “well-rounded’ and “liberally educated”  seems in retrospect to have been largely a matter of being well-rounded in only half of the liberal arts curriculum.  Science and math people were well-rounded in a different way, if they were well-rounded at all.

There’s a lot of reason to question this.  Not least of which being that if our interests and abilities are genetic we have seen a massive surge of the gene pool toward the STEM side of the equation if enrollments in humanities majors is to serve as any judge.  I think it was Malcolm Gladwell who recently pointed out that genius has a lot less to do with giftedness than it does with practice and motivation.  Put 10000 hours in to almost anything and you will become a genius at it (not entirely true, but the general principle applies).  Extrapolating, we might say that even if students aren’t going to be geniuses in math and technology, they could actually get a lot better at it if they’d only try.

And there’s a lot of reason to ask them to try.  At the recent Rethinking Success conference at Wake Forest, one of the speakers who did research into the transition of college students in to the workplace pounded the table and declared, “In this job market you must either be a technical student with a liberal arts education or a liberal arts major with technical savvy.  There is no middle ground.”  There is no middle ground.  What became quite clear to me at this conference is that companies mean it that they want students with a liberal arts background.  However, it was also very clear to me that they expect them to have technical expertise that can be applied immediately to job performance. Speaker after speaker affirmed the value of the liberal arts.  They also emphasized the absolute and crying need for computational, mathematical, and scientific literacy.

In other words, we in the Humanities will serve our students extremely poorly if we accept their naive statements about their own genetic makeup, allowing them to proceed with a mathematical or scientific illiteracy that we would cry out against if the same levels of illiteracy were evident in others with respect to our own disciplines.

I’ve found, incidentally, that in my conversations with my colleagues in information sciences or math or sciences, that many of them are much more conversant in the arts and humanities than I or my colleagues are in even the generalities of science, mathematics, or technology.  This ought not to be the case, and in view of that i and a few of my colleagues are considering taking some workshops in computer coding with our information sciences faculty.  We ought to work toward creating a generation of humanists that does not perpetuate our own levels of illiteracy, for their own sake and for the health of our disciplines in the future.

8 thoughts on “Do Humanities Programs Encourage the Computational Illiteracy of Their Students?

  1. Grace

    Part of the problem with math is that it’s very teacher-dependent. I’ve had some great math teachers that made me love the subject, but others who were so bad at explaining things that I felt lost the entire time. I think that if we want to make any real difference in students’ perceptions of math we need to focus on getting teachers who are good at teaching, not just ones who know the material.

    1. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

      I wonder if that’s not true for other disciplines as well, even if the teachers may function in different ways. I had teacher that made literature as dead as a doornail in a lot of respects, so it wasn’t as if English classes are automatically scintillating.

      Is this Grace Troxell formerly from Camp Hill, or another Grace?

      1. Grace

        Grace Troxel from Portage, PA. I don’t think there’s any relation to the two L Troxels, but I could be wrong…

        I think the difference for me was always that with almost any other subject, I could teach myself if I read the book, whereas math was never intuitive like that. It might also be because math textbooks when I was in school only gave two or three examples, and those examples were always of the easy problems, which made it hard to figure out the more difficult ones without someone to explain the process.

  2. Dermot McCabe

    Peter, I would consider computer coding, of itself, a rather peripheral subject on the margins of science and mathematics. I would have thought subjects like fourier analysis, compression technologies, fundamentals of computer and communications hardware, optics and storage technologies are far more important, relevant and interesting than coding. The intrinsic value of learning coding by itself is practically zero unless you are going to become a computer coder-writer/programmer.
    Perhaps my view of coding is different from yours. I have spent a very considerable part of my life working with broadcast technology, from the design of the first microcomputer controlled video switchers to the design of a modern computerised Television Newsroom/Broadcast Studios. Coding comes a long way behind those other subjects which I mentioned above when it comes to a real understanding of the technologies and science that underpins the most significant developments in our technical world. These are the fundamental subjects that require the very same imaginative and creative processes that are are often, mistakenly, attributed only to the liberal arts. I have experience of both.

    1. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

      i think for us it’s more a basic question of knowing tools that are necessary understanding some of the work that goes on in digital humanities work. So on one level I agree with you as far as what would be large scale things to become familiar with and more profound and important parts of the world of mathematics and science. On the other hand, nearly everyone you talk to doing DH work talks about the need for just some basic literacy in information sciences. Stuff you can absorb in the midst of projects, perhaps, but a language to get familiar with nonetheless.

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