A Three-Pronged Approach to Saving Humanities Departments

So you graduated with a humanities degree. Well, what are you going to do with that?

I really, really hate this question. There are only 3 answers that make sense to the people who ask it:

  1. I’m going to teachers college/law school.
  2. I’m going to grad school (be careful – this one only staves off the questions for another few years and then they come back louder and more persistently than ever).
  3. I have no idea. I just wasted the last four years of my life. Yep, I’m unemployed, bitter, and poor.

For many humanities majors, the trouble with life is that it doesn’t end with university – unless you seek to become a professor in one for the rest of your life, which is a whole different story that I’m not going to talk about today. In reality, most humanities majors will not apply their deep knowledge of the sea battles of 1812 or the role of family in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in their day-to-day jobs. Many do not even want to. They aren’t able to respond to the many, many people who ask the question above without feeling as though they have to either defend their choice of degree because it makes them “well rounded” and “interesting” or denounce it as useless in helping them find employment.

So a lot of commentators think this means humanities programs are useless, and call for eliminating French departments or combine Comparative Literature departments with a whole host of others to save on administration costs. I’m not going to get into why this is a bad thing; I think that’s fairly obvious and, besides, I write about it all the time. Instead, I’m going to advance a theory about how to fix it.

Of course, the humanities are not useless. They’re just poorly marketed. There needs to be a little more spin and some concrete action on the part of universities, professors and graduates – and then we can all leave humanities majors in peace, confident that they will be respected for their unique skills and knowledge.

Most people want a job that plays to their strengths and interests, in which they like their colleagues and are respected by their managers. This should not be an outcome that is positioned solely as an option for people with “practical” degrees or those who are willing to “sell out” and sacrifice their ideals. In order to change the prevailing “brand” of humanities programs, namely that they are highly impractical, unimportant, or less intellectually rigourous than others, there first needs to be an appreciation from corporations that all workplaces actually benefit from a diversity of backgrounds. Recruitment should not be a zero-sum game. Commerce majors are not better than humanities majors, and vice versa – there needs to be a mix, not just one or the other. So workplaces and their recruiters need to be educated to understand that they can and should hire different knowledge and skill sets. And then they actually need to do it.

In order to make this happen, humanities majors within companies need to learn to articulate how they are valuable much better than they do now. I have heard and read many times that employers should hire humanities majors because they are great at seeing patterns, understanding the “big picture,” analyzing data, and communicating. Read any “careers for history/philosophy/English/etc. grads” book and it will say exactly that. But who tells me these things? People who majored in the humanities and then couldn’t get jobs anywhere apart from the university career centres they work at now. Or people who couldn’t get a job so turned to writing books giving advice to other people who can’t get jobs. It seems slightly less credible coming from them, as you can imagine. Also consider that most of the recent grads identified on the Globe and Mail’s page on jobs for humanities graduates are working in completely different fields or had nothing to say about their degrees and how they helped them.

Yet I look through the biographies of corporate leaders all the time (it’s my job to analyze them and communicate the patterns – go figure). And most of them were humanities majors. Their peers and managers appreciate just those traits I mentioned above: thinking laterally, recognizing patterns, strategizing future trends, and communicating well. They should be the ones trumpeting that fact. And if you too are successful because of these things, don’t hide behind an accounting certificate. Tell your hiring manager friends that you were successful because of your degree in English Literature for x, y, and z reasons – not despite it. That’s prong 1.

There is also a big, big role for universities here. A friend recently commented to me that the jargon-y non-words, abstract concepts, and constant discussions of Foucault favoured by humanities professors serve only to distance them from broader society and make their work seem irrelevant and without much value. He quoted from a New York Times discussion on the same topic:

In recent decades, the humanities invested in ineffectual vogues. First, they embraced “high theory,” a blanket term covering abstract and dense models of interpretation such as deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Theory then took a personal/political turn and spotlighted racial and sexual identity. However much the topics inspired the faculty, though, they failed to attract students, and without enrollments those programs just don’t look affordable.

Of course nobody wants to pay the tuition – there is little hope of a job at the end of it. But if corporations are being educated to “take a chance” on humanities majors, universities need to show them why it’s a great idea to do so. A lot of professors still can’t see beyond the last exam in their class to where it leaves students, and are happy to shunt them off to the “Careers Centre” as though it will actually help them (when, in reality, most university career centres are catered toward helping match business graduates with high-salaried corporate jobs and stocking books on “careers for history majors” written by the aforementioned authors unable to find employment themselves). Students are really on their own, and don’t even have the benefit of having learned how to speak corporatese and to market themselves in their classes, like business school graduates. Every students needs to forge an individual path with little or no experience on how to do so.

The only way for humanities departments to save themselves is to create advocates for their students in their departments. These advocates need to learn the language of employers, and speak it well. They need to be as active as the advocates in the business schools (who, let me tell you, email me daily about why their students would be great fits for our corporate environment). They need to seek out great places for humanities majors to work and work hard to show the hiring managers there how lucky they would be to have them. They need to set up co-op programs. They need to create vast and official networks of humanities graduates who can be advocates for similar grads. That’s prong 2.

And professors need to start talking about how what students learn in their classes is useful, either in a job or as a hobby. A lot of my professors sneered at the prospect of working outside of academia, but 95% of their students end up there. The “with us or against us” mentality presumes that either one’s whole life needs to be dedicated to Hegel/Wordsworth/medieval monasteries, or else none of it can be. But most of us live in the grey area in the middle, maybe a professor of Hegel, but more likely writing blogs about Hegel, reading Hegel for fun, or just living life as something completely unrelated but in accordance with his ideal of synthesis, and happy about it. Professors need to do a little more work to save themselves and use their great analytical and communication skills to be advocates for their teaching and their students, in language everyone can understand. That’s prong 3.

The role of universities in society is changing rapidly. If humanities programs are going to survive, they will need to recognize that there is life after school, and that it can be fulfilling and interesting for their intelligent, well-rounded graduates. It already is, for many. And these people are the ones whose voices must lead the chorus.

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2 Responses to A Three-Pronged Approach to Saving Humanities Departments

  1. Jeremy says:

    This is one of your best posts so far on a topical issue. I especially like prong three which, I can tell you, is especially an issue in graduate school. The idea that you’d want to spend several years studying something even if you don’t wish to become a professor just doesn’t fly. In the undergraduate realm I think there should be no place for that kind of opposition to simple interest in a subject for knowledge’s sake. When even the humanities departments are embracing the idea that universities are only places to gain practical knowledge (i.e. to become a sociology prof.) then they are tying a noose around their own necks. Not everyone who wants to take a course on party politics can go on to work in academia. If they did, 20% of the population would be political science profs. Talk about a knowledge economy…

    I also notice that you picked naval battles of the War of 1812 to illustrate your point. You didn’t have anyone specific in mind, did you?

  2. Kathryn Exon Smith says:

    Not at all, Jeremy. In fact, I was trying to call attention to the fact that the naval battles were key and largely overlooked in modern studies. 🙂 Hurrah, British Sea Power!

    Anyway, more to the point, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with acquiring useful skills by studying interesting content. And I think if undergraduates and businesses could look at it that way too, humanities would be far more popular even than they are now.

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