Tag Archives: humanities

Majoring in the Extreme Humanities

Playing Scrabble the other day I looked up the word “selvages” online and in the process discovered the sport of extreme scrap quilting.  I still don’t have my mind around the concept since I thought that scrap quilting was by its nature designed to be the opposite of extreme, but apparently it is a “thing” since it calls up 750000 hits on google in one form or another.  I can’t quite figure out the difference between extreme scrap quilting and regular scrap quilting, but I’m sure that if its important to my happiness someone will let me know.  Or even it’s not.

I take it that extreme scrap quilting is on the order of extreme eating, extreme couponing, extreme makeovers, and extreme other things.  Indeed, it appears that in order to be noticed as something special and different it is important that it become extreme, unusual, and call attention to itself.

I’ve concluded that this is one of the problems with the Humanities. We are not extreme enough.  We need to shake off the image of the sedate professors in elbow patches and figure out new ways to make our disciplines sufficiently life threatening to attract interest. If we were more extreme we could have sexier advertisement in college brochures and more positive coverage in the national press.

I struggled to come up with a few examples, but I wonder if others could come up with more.

“Extreme Hemingway 101”–Read Hemingway on a safari to Africa.  You will be injected with a form of gangrene and a rescue plane will fly you in to the side of Mount Kilimanjaro.  If you make it out alive your grand prize will be a a year for two in an isolated cabin in Idaho.  By the end of this course you will truly understand what it meant to be Ernest Hemingway.  Because we will spend so much time flying around the world, we will only have the time for the one short story.  But lots and lots and lots of experiential learning.

“Extreme Poetry 302”–competitors will rack up debt and be given jobs as baristas.  The competitor who is willing to go without health benefits and adequate housing the longest will be rewarded with a publishing contract with 2000.00 subvention fees for the cover art. [Oh, wait….we already do that one for real].

“Extreme History 291”–Students will be put out in sod houses on the Kansas Prairie without electricity, food or running water in order to relive America’s westward expansion. Students from the extreme archery team will provide realistic attacks on settlers in an effort to help students better understand the responses of the colonized to their colonizers.  [I think this was actually some kind of television show already, but why not steal a good idea]

“Extreme Philosophy 479”– an extreme version of Aristotle’s peripatetic school, students will be required to run a marathon on a treadmill while wearing specially designed headsets that allow them to watch all Slavoj Zizek videos currently posted on Youtube [because we realize students are not professional marathoners, we believe there will be sufficient time to actually accomplish this assignment].  Final exam focused on actually reading Zizek is optional.

I’m sure there must be other possibilities.  I’d love to hear of them.

[True story, in writing this blog post just now I googled “extreme humanities” and came up with several Indian sites for hair weaves made of real human hair;  I kid you not. Judging from the web site I looked at, it appears there’s an unnerving desire for “virgin human hair.”  I had not really realized this was a consideration in the baldness management industry.   “Extreme Higher Education”, more grimly, starts out with several pages of mostly news stories focusing on extreme cuts to Higher education]

More Undergraduate Research in the Digital Humanities

This afternoon the School of the Humanities at Messiah College will be connecting to the NITLE Symposium on Undergraduate work in the digital Humanities. Messiah College is currently considering making the development of undergraduate research, and especially collaborative research between faculty and students, a central theme of our next strategic plan.  Like many colleges and universities across the country, we are seeing undergraduate research as a way of deepening student learning outcomes and engagement with their education, while also providing more and better skills for life after college.

The push toward student research has some detractors–Andrew DelBanco and Geoffrey Galt Harpham among them–but I’ll blog at some other time about my disagreement with them on liberal arts grounds.  I’ve been on record before as to how I think Digital Humanities is a (or THE) way to go with this effort within my own disciplines.  I was glad to receive the video below from Adeline Koh at Richard Stockton College, chronicling the achievements of the RE:Humanities conference at Swarthmore.  A nice overview of the conference.  If you look closely and don’t blink there’s a couple of shots of my colleagues, Larry Lake, and one of me apparently typing away distractedly on my iPad.  Although perhaps I was tweeting and achieving a transcendent level of attention and interaction without really having to listen.  🙂

This afternoon, the School of the Humanities here at Messiah College is going to consider some more whether and how Digital Humanities might be applicable to our situation by participating in the NITLE symposium on this topic at 3:00.

What is an education for? Remembering the American Revolution

History can remind us of just how expansive our ancestors could be, and how foreshortened our own vision has become.  One thing that makes our current discussion of higher education so difficult is the dramatic impoverishment of the range of our discourse about educational purposes: the narrower our frame of reference the more cramped our imagination, the more limited our creative responses to crisis, and the fewer our possible options.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham begins his sixth chapter with a citation from John Adams.

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy.  My sons ought to study mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculature, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

Of this particular citation and others like it, Harpham goes on to say,

[It] is worth recalling that once upon a time the ruling class–which had also been the revolutionary class–imagined that they were risking their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in behalf of a futurity where what would come to be called the humanities would dominate the concerns of the citizenry.  They humanities, they felt, would represent the crowning achievement of a nation that, having prevailed in war, would build its new society on a foundation of such economic, political, military, and social security that citizens could enrich their lives by turning their attention to the study and appreciation of material and textual artifacts…Adams, Jefferson, and others believed that a general concern for the humanities represented not only the best possible future for the new nation but also the natural progression of mankind, if freed from fear and want.

 We are, of course, a long way from that vision now, our educational vision cramped by a cultural imagination that extends no further than security, economic security first and foremost, but other kinds of security as well.  The quest for security leads fathers to discourage their sons interest in poetry and philosophy and insists that they study business, or leads other students to declare as education majors so they “have something to fall back on”.  It’s worth noting that Adams spoke in a period far more precarious and insecure for the American Republic than anything we face today, and so our current obsessions and fears that education ought to be about employment first and always seems spiritually and ethically….empty.  In the midst of a national experiment that could still have failed, Adams was able to imagine that work existed for the higher purposes of education, rather than education existing for the “practical” purposes of work.

Not that there was no debate between advocates for what is now called professional education and what we continue to call the liberal arts.  It was, in some respects, ever thus, even if it seems more thus now than ever. Harpham points out that John Locke was a philosopher in favor of what we now call professional education and dismissive of the preciousness of the liberal arts.  Harpham also points out that it is a good thing the Lockes of the world did not win the argument and the Adamses did since no one would now be reading either one were it not for the continuing if weakened importance of a liberal arts education.

However,  I think there’s an irony in Adams’s formulation (and in Harpham’s appreciation of it) since it seems to assume that fear and want are defined qualities that can be addressed, finite needs that can be satisfied.  We live in a society that in some respects makes a living off the generation and regeneration of fear–the beneficiaries being our massive security industries–the prisons, the military, homeland security, gated communities, home security systems, and on and on.  We are also a culture defined by the generation of want rather than its satisfaction.  As much as I admired Steve Jobs, Apple is a company built on the generation of desire for things people never knew they wanted, and the iconic Apple is one small mythic reminder of the infinite allure of the new product hanging like fruit from the lowest shelf.

The irony of Adams’s formulation is that there is never any end of want, and our insatiable desires generate, at a minimum, the ongoing fear that we will somehow lose track of all our baubles or have them taken from us.  And our fundamental fears for our children have to do with the fear that they will have fewer baubles than we have.  And so finally, if want and if fear are potentially never ending–like the wars that Adams feels compelled to study–what room left ever for those higher human ideals that Adams deferred for himself. I think he deferred them unknowingly for his sons and daughters and granddaughters and grandsons as well. Are they not deferred always, if we begin with the belief that security is the means and education is at the end? In the world we have created we will never be secure enough for the poetry and philosophy that Adams at least desired for his progeny.

A couple of years ago I tried to think through my own rationale for the purposes of education.  You can listen to it here as you have interest:  Convocation Address: Education for Praise

Deep and Wide: Katharine Brooks on Becoming a T-shaped Professional

Earlier today I blogged on the need for humanities students to take seriously the need to become more literate in science, technology and mathematics, both in order to pursue the ideal of a well-rounded liberal arts education and very pragmatically in order to prepare themselves for the world of work. Katharine Brooks (UT-Austin), one of the keynoters at the Rethinking Success conference at Wake Forest takes up the same point in a different manner in her reflections on the need for job candidates coming out of college to present themselves as T-shaped individuals, persons with deep knowledge of one or two areas and broad knowledge of several.

According to those in the talent-seeking field, the most sought-after candidates for management, consulting, research, and other leadership positions are T-shaped. The vertical stem of the T is the foundation: an in-depth specialized knowledge in one or two fields. The horizontal crossbar refers to the complementary skills of communication (including negotiation), creativity, the ability to apply knowledge across disciplines, empathy (including the ability to see from other perspectives), and an understanding of fields outside your area of expertise.

Organizations need workers with specialized knowledge who can also think broadly about a variety of areas, and apply their knowledge to new settings. Since T-shaped professionals possess skills and knowledge that are both broad and deep, developing and promoting your T-shaped talent may be the ticket to yourcareer success now and in the future.

The term “T-shaped” isn’t new: it’s been in use since the 1990s but mostly in consulting and technical fields. Several companies, including IDEO andMcKinsey & Company, have used this concept for years because they have always sought multidisciplinary workers who are capable of responding creatively to unexpected situations. Many companies have also developed interdisciplinary T teams to solve problems.

Dr. Phil Gardner at Michigan State University, who researches and writes regularly on recruiting trends, has been researching the concept of the T-shaped professional and the T-shaped manager. At the recent Rethinking Success Conference at Wake Forest University, Dr. Gardner described the ideal job candidate as a “liberal arts student with technical skills” or a “business/engineering student with humanities training”— in other words, a T-shaped candidate. Dr. Gardner is currently developing a guide for college students based on this concept. He notes that “while the engineers are out in front on this concept – every field will require T professional development.”

As my post earlier today suggested, I think this kind of approach to things is absolutely crucial for graduates in humanities programs, and we ought to shape our curricula–both within the majors and in our general education programs– in such a way that we are producing students confident in and able to articulate the ways in which their education and experiences have made them both deep and broad.
If I can take a half step back from those assertions and plunge in another direction, I will only point out that there is a way in which this particular formulation may let my brethren who are in technical fields off the hook a little too easily.  If it is the case that engineers are leaders in this area, I will say that the notion of breadth that is entailed may be a fairly narrow one, limited to the courses that students are able to get in their general education curriculum.
My colleague, Ray Norman, who is the Dean of our School of Science Engineering and Health has talked with me on more than one occasion about how desirable his engineering graduates are because they have had several courses in the humanities.  I am glad for that, but I point out to him that it is absolutely impossible for his engineering graduates to even minor in a field in my area, much less dream of a double major.  About a decade ago when I was chair of the English department, I went to a colleague who has since vacated the chair of the engineering department, asking if we could talk about ways that we could encourage some interchange between our departments, such that I could encourage my majors to take more engineering or other technical courses, and he could encourage his engineers to minor in English.  He was enthusiastic but also regretful.  He’d love to have my English majors in his program, but he couldn’t send his engineers my way;  the size of the engineering curriculum meant it was absolutely impossible for his students to take anything but the required courses in general education.
I don’t hold this against my colleagues; they labor under accreditation standards and national expectations in the discipline.  But I do think it raises again important questions about what an undergraduate education is for, questions explored effectively by Andrew Delbanco’s recent book.  Should undergraduate programs be so large and so professionally oriented that students are unable to take a minor or possibly a double major?  Whistling in to the wind, I say they should not.  Breadth and Depth should not mean the ability to know ONLY one thing really well;  it ought to mean knowing AT LEAST one thing really well, and a couple of other things pretty well, and several other things generally well.
Oddly enough, it is far easier for liberal arts students to achieve this richer kind of breadth and depth, if they only will.  A major in history, a minor in sociology, a second minor in information sciences, a couple of internships working on web-development at a museum, a college with a robust general education program.  There’s a T-shape to consider.
[Side note;  It was Camp Hill Old Home Week at Wake Forest and the Rethinking Success conference last week.  At a dinner for administrators and career officers hosted by Jacquelyn Fetrow, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Jacque and Katherine Brooks discovered they’d both grown up in Camp Hill, and both within a half dozen blocks of where I now live.  Small world, and Camp Hill is leading it :-)]

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.

Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop in Search of CEOs

One sign of the crisis of confidence in the humanities is that we keep feeling compelled to trot out CEOs to make our case for us.  It’s a little like the way we cited Freud in graduate school even if we believed the emperor had no clothes, just because we knew our professors believed he did.  And so, while we’d like to be citing John Henry Newman on the Idea of a Christian University or Socrates on the tragedy of an unexamined life, we look to the world of business for hopeful confirmation.  This is the way of both presidents and preachers, so why not professors.

I’m not too proud to play that game, so I note this recent essay from Jason Trennert in Forbes, reminding us again that there are lessons important to the boardroom that are learned best in history books and not in business seminars.

I was fortunate enough to attend great schools, earning both a bachelor’s degree in economics and an MBA, and I’ve wondered more times than I care to admit in the last few years whether I learned a damn thing.

After considerable thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that the broader, more liberal arts- oriented courses I took in my undergraduate years did far more to help me to adapt to what was deemed to be “economically unprecedented” than the more technical lessons I learned in business school. Not once in the last three years did I feel compelled to develop more complex mathematical models to help me discern what was happening.

This was due, at least in part, to an almost immediate revelation that it was these same models that sowed the seeds of the financial collapse in the first place. The financial crisis didn’t prompt me to do more math but to read quite a bit more history.

Is the decline of the Humanities responsible for Wall Street Corruption?

Andrew Delbanco’s view in a recent Huffington Post essay is “Yes”, at least to some indeterminate degree, though I admit that the title of his post “A Modest Proposal” gave me some pause given its Swiftian connotations:

What I do know is that at the elite universities from which investment firms such as Goldman Sachs recruit much of their talent, most students are no longer seeking a broad liberal education. They want, above all, marketable skills in growth fields such as information technology. They study science, where the intellectual action is. They sign up for economics and business majors as avenues to the kind of lucrative career Mr. Smith enjoyed. Much is to be gained from these choices, for both individuals and society. But something is also at risk. Students are losing a sense of how human beings grappled in the past with moral issues that challenge us in the present and will persist into the future. This is the shrinking province of what we call “the humanities.”

For the past twenty years, the percentage of students choosing to major in the humanities — in literature, philosophy, history, and the arts — has been declining at virtually all elite universities. This means, for instance, that fewer students encounter the concept of honor in Homer’s Iliad, or Kant’s idea of the “categorical imperative” — the principle that Mr. Smith thinks is out of favor at Goldman: that we must treat other people as ends in themselves rather than as means to our own satisfaction. Mr. Smith was careful to say that he was not aware of anything illegal going on. But few students these days read Herman Melville’s great novella, Billy Budd, about the difficult distinction between law and justice.

Correlation is not cause, and it’s impossible to prove a causal relation between what students study in college and how they behave in their post-college lives. But many of us who still teach the humanities believe that a liberal education can strengthen one’s sense of solidarity with other human beings — a prerequisite for living generously toward others. One of the striking discoveries to be gained from an education that includes some knowledge of the past is that certain fundamental questions persist over time and require every generation to answer them for itself.

via Andrew Delbanco: A Modest Proposal.

This is consonant with Delbanco’s thesis–expressed in his book College:  What it Was, Is, and Should Be–that education in college used to be about the education of the whole person but has gradually been emptied of the moral content of its originally religious more broadly civic vision, and the preprofessional and pecuniary imagination has become the dominant if not the sole rationale for pursuing an education. I am viscerally attracted to this kind of argument, so I offer a little critique rather than cheerleading.  First, while I do think its the case that an education firmly rooted in the humanities can provide for the kinds of deep moral reflection that forestalls a purely instrumentalist view of our fellow citizens–or should I say consumers–it’s also very evidently the case that people with a deep commitment to the arts and humanities descend into moral corruption as easily as anyone else.  The deeply felt anti-semitism of the dominant modernists would be one example, and the genteel and not so genteel racism of the Southern Agrarians would be another.  When Adorno said that there was no poetry after Auschwitz, he was only partly suggesting that the crimes of the 20th century were beyond the redemption of literature;  he also meant more broadly that the dream that literature and culture could save us was itself a symptom of our illness, not a solution to it.  Delbanco might be too subject to this particular dream, I think.

Secondly, I think that this analysis runs close to blaming college students for not majoring in or studying more in the humanities and is a little bit akin to blaming the victim–these young people have inherited the world we’ve given them, and we would do well to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask what kind of culture we’ve put in place that would make the frantic pursuit of economic gain in the putative name of economic security a sine qua non in the moral and imaginative lives of our children.

That having been said.  Yes, I do think the world–including the world of Wall Street–would be better if students took the time to read Billy Budd or Beloved, wedging it in somewhere between the work study jobs, appointments with debt counselors, and multiple extracurriculars and leadership conferences that are now a prerequisite for a job after college.