Humanities thrive in STEM-focused universities (opinion)
Not a week goes by without reading an academic funeral dirge deploring the disappearance of the humanities in higher education. In one of the most recent, Mark Bauerlein claims to have identified another cause of the crisis, arguing that the removal of canonical works and monumental grand narratives from the curriculum has dampened students’ interest in the humanities. In order to reverse the disastrous enrollment trends, Bauerlein implores instructors “to make the humanities even greater” (yes, really!). He advocates a return to the teaching of “masterpieces” and “strokes of genius” representative of the “long march of civilization” (think: Western civ!). He calls on humanities teachers to declare: “If you don’t know the story of Dido and Aeneas, the last eight minutes of Götterdammerung, what happened in Dunkirk, the first amendment, how Malcolm Little changed in prison… you’re a helpless. If humanities professors cannot declare this with enthusiastic conviction, then, he predicts, “the humanities will remain what they are today: a small part of campus, a little humanity showcase to temper the empirical and instrumental push of business, STEM and the rest.
Others will respond to the social and cultural foundations of Bauerlein’s work. My answer is that of a colleague who teaches in the kind of institution where, by definition, the humanities have always been “a minor part of the campus” in the midst of the giant disciplines that Bauerlein summarizes as “business, STEM and the rest “. Far from the apocalyptic scenario he invokes, the faculty of humanities and humanities thrives in the universities of technology and science. And here’s why.
According to one’s definition of the humanities, the number of students majoring in English, history, languages, philosophy, etc. has fallen dramatically, by about a quarter, over the past decade.
In the face of this general decline, I observed an encouraging mentality among the students of my own institution. In the fall semester of 2021, I taught our introductory course to a major that unites literature, media and communication. Of the 35 students, two-thirds indicated that they chose to pursue a humanities degree at a technological university because they felt that an intentional integration of the humanities with STEM disciplines would be to their advantage. They felt that the separation of work done along dated “left-brain” and “right-brain” distinctions was an obstacle to solving humanity’s most pernicious current problems. Most want to share lessons and projects with STEM students, embrace educational experiences that unite stories of ideas with stories of science and technology, and prefer to view poetry as a “technical language.” to hackneyed binaries like “science, not fiction”. ”
These students do not appear to be unique in their refreshing attitudes toward interdisciplinarity. At a symposium hosted by Georgia Tech, Humanistic Perspectives at Technological Universities, in 2019, colleagues across the country unanimously reported that interest and applications for their interdisciplinary humanities majors were either increasing, is at least stable.
Humanities scholars, and not just since the pandemic, usually lament the solitary way in which they produce much of their work. The scholarly monograph, most often produced in monastic seclusion, is still considered the gold standard of a successful academic career and the prerequisite for tenure. While that doesn’t necessarily change when you work at an institute of technology, collaborative research and scholarship is common here, and co-writing is encouraged and actively encouraged. Many internal grantmaking initiatives at my institution require not just cross-unit but cross-college participation, creating an ecosystem of interdisciplinary and team thinking. Likewise, the predominant humanistic orientation to thought and writing is imbued with an attention to materiality and ‘making’, adding a joyfully communal, holistic and applied dimension to scholarly productivity. Moreover, the massive presence of postdoctoral colleagues and scientific researchers complicates and diversifies the traditional sharp distinctions between those who teach and those who are taught. A focus on student research, internship and co-op experiences, lab culture, and vertically integrated programs (which include undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, junior and senior faculty, research scientists and professors in the practice, all working on the same problem over multiple semesters) also irons out rank and appointment distinctions, replacing them with an emphasis on collaborative problem-solving of complex problems.
Another healthy aspect of life in a technological university is the fact that failure is an essential and inevitable part of scientific research. In the humanities, if your idea is considered wrong by your colleagues, it can mean the end of your career; in science, failing with a hypothesis only means you observe and measure more and differently, only to come up with a new hypothesis and tests. These aspects and consequences of collaborative and experimental work are often revealing for researchers in the social sciences. They might not have met and considered them if they had remained among their own at a traditional university.
Funding agencies, private and public, have increasingly recognized the benefits of bringing together the humanities with science and technology. However, what these agencies have in mind these days is not the dull hiring of the typical lonely digital humanist, but genuine integration on both sides. For example, at Georgia Tech, we have technical writers as co-instructors in the one-year capstone for students majoring in Computer Science; the Computational Media major rotates its leadership and has a program committee made up of colleagues from the humanities, arts, and computing; and our digital integrative liberal arts center receives funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, not to provide remedial technical skills to liberal arts students and faculty (as so many such centers do), but to help integrate humanistic research into science, engineering, and other non-humanities programs. The many joint degree programs – my School of Arts, Media and Communication offers programs such as industrial design, interactive computing, library, modern languages, music and psychology – and the collaborative spirit generally open up access to funding sources (National Science Foundation, National Institutes for Health, Gates Foundation) and amounts otherwise inaccessible to academics in the humanities. As a result, there is opportunity to work as a Co-Principal Investigator or Senior Consultant and add an essential human-centered perspective to impactful multi-million dollar projects.
A new collaborative model?
I’m pretty sure the integrative models I mentioned above won’t satisfy Mark Bauerlein. He never defines exactly how many studies and faculties in the humanities would be sufficient to satisfy his ideal state of the academy. A bit like the Spanish empire, it seems to imagine “more, more and more.” Of my “little” less agonistic humanity window” in a technological university, I propose a model that does not see STEM disciplines as the empire of evil threatening to destroy the academy and humanity. I can imagine a flourishing partnership bringing Humanistic perspectives to our collaboration with our colleagues in the STEM units. For this to happen, of course, STEM disciplines must take their own steps toward intentionally welcoming humanities practices and methodologies. And that’s exactly what they did: “Branches of the Same Tree,” the 2018 consensus report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, found that educational programs that mutually integrate experiences learning in the humanities and the arts along with science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine are linked to positive learning outcomes. Among the positive learning outcomes observed are increased communication, critical thinking and teamwork skills; improved visuospatial reasoning; improved mastery of content; increased empathy and resilience; and improved motivation and enjoyment of learning. Other results include “better retention, better GPAs, and higher graduation rates.” Furthermore, evidence suggests that “integration positively affects the recruitment, learning and retention of women and underrepresented minorities in science and engineering”.
Based on these findings, the national academies have made far-reaching recommendations for future interdisciplinary integration at the level of individual courses, certificates, and full degree programs. This is a revolutionary development, as recognized by Laurie Grobman and E. Michele Ramsey in their clever guide, Major decisions: university, career and arguments in favor of the humanities (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020). Schools and universities willing to consider deepening existing models and developing new models of cross-disciplinary integration between and among disciplines (including vocational training) will establish a distinct voice in higher education across nationally and globally and will help prepare students for the rapidly changing needs of the 21st century workforce.
Why is such a deep and intentional fusion of humanities and STEM disciplines essential? In an increasingly technological world, human-centered paradigms and creativity must not remain siloed along the lines developed to satisfy the knowledge economy of the late 19th century; nor should they be kept artificially at a mere superficial level in the general education requirements developed in the aftermath of the two world wars. Instead, they deserve to accompany and shape new educational technologies, to work in concert with STEM disciplines, to communicate and forcefully affirm their relevance and value within the framework of a new holistic educational experience. .