The humanities thrive at STEM-focused universities (opinion)

Not a week goes by in which we don’t read an academic dirge that deplores the demise of the humanities in higher education. In one of the recent ones, Mark Bauerlein claims to have identified another cause for the crisis, arguing that the curricular retreat away from canonical works and monumental grand narratives has dampened student interest in the humanities. In order to turn the disastrous enrollment trends around, Bauerlein implores instructors “to make the humanities great again” (yes, really!). He advocates a return to teaching “masterpieces” and “strokes of genius” representative of the “long march of civilization” (think: Western civ!). He calls on humanities instructors to declare, “If you don’t know the story of Dido and Aeneas, the last eight minutes of Götterdämmerung, what happened at Dunkirk, the First Amendment, how Malcolm Little changed in prison … you are a deprived individual.” If humanities instructors can’t declare this with enthusiastic conviction then, he predicts, “the humanities will remain what they are now: a minor part of the campus, a little humanitas window dressing to temper the empirical and instrumental thrust of business, STEM and the rest.”

Others will respond to the social and cultural underpinnings of Bauerlein’s piece. My response is that of a colleague who teaches at the kind of institution where, by definition, the humanities have always been “a minor part of the campus” amid the behemoth disciplines Bauerlein abridges as “business, STEM and the rest.” Far from the apocalyptic scenario he invokes, the humanities and humanities faculty thrive at universities of technology and science. And here is why.

Healthy Enrollment

Depending on one’s definition of the humanities, the number of students majoring in English, history, languages, philosophy, etc. has declined, by about one-fourth, over the last decade.

In the face of this general decline, I have observed an encouraging mentality among students at my own institution. In the fall semester of 2021, I taught our introductory class for a major that units literature, media and communication. Out of the 35 students, two-thirds indicated they had decided to get a humanities degree at a technological university because they felt an intentional integration of the humanities with STEM disciplines would be to their advantage. They felt the separation of work done according to dated “left-brain” and “right-brain” distinctions was an obstacle to solving the most wicked of humanity’s current problems. Most of them want to share classes and projects together with STEM students, embrace educational experiences that unite the histories of ideas with histories of science and technology, and prefer thinking of poetry as “engineered language” to timeworn binaries like “science, not fiction.” ”

These students do not seem to be unique in their refreshing attitudes toward interdisciplinarity. During a Georgia Tech–hosted symposium, Humanistic Perspectives at Technological Universities, in 2019, colleagues from around the country reported unanimously that interest in and applications to their interdisciplinary humanities majors were either increasing or at least stable.

Collaborative Atmosphere

Humanities scholars, and not only since the pandemic, habitually deplore the solitary manner in which they produce much of their work. The scholarly monograph, most often produced in monastic isolation, is still praised as the gold standard for a successful academic career and the prerequisite for attaining of tenure. While this doesn’t necessarily change when working at an institute of technology, collaborative research and scholarship are common here, and co-authorship is encouraged and actively incentivized. Numerous internal grant initiatives at my institution require not only cross-unit but cross-college participation, thus creating an ecosystem of interdisciplinary and team-based thinking. Similarly, the predominant humanist orientation on thought and writing is infused with attention to materiality and “making,” adding a joyfully communal, holistic and applied dimension to scholarly productivity. In addition, the massive presence of postdoctoral colleagues and research scientists complicates and diversifies the stark traditional 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 of the practice, all working on the same issue over several semesters) also flattens distinctions of rank and appointment, replacing them with an emphasis on solving complex issues collaboratively.

Another healthy aspect of life at a technological university is the fact that failure is an essential and unavoidable part of scientific research. In the humanities, if your idea is considered wrong by your colleagues, it may mean the end of your career; In the sciences, failing with one hypothesis only means that 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 often turn out to be eye-opening to humanities scholars. They might not have encountered and considered them had they stayed among their own at a traditional university.

External Funding

Funding agencies, private and public, have recognized the advantages of bringing the humanities together with the sciences and technology. However, what these agencies have in mind these days is not the uninspiring hire of the typical lone digital humanist but a true integration of both sides with one another. For example, at Georgia Tech we have technical writers as co-instructors in the yearlong capstone for students majoring in computing; the computational media major rotates its directorship and has a curriculum committee made up of humanities, arts and computer science colleagues; and our Digital Integrative Liberal Arts Center receives funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, not to bring remedial technical skills to liberal arts students and faculty (as so many such centers do), but to help integrate humanistic inquiry into science, engineering and other nonhumanities curricula. The numerous joint degree programs—my School of Literature, Media and Communication runs such programs with industrial design, interactive computing, the library, modern languages, music and psychology—and the overall collaborative spirit opens access to funding sources (National Science Foundation, National Institutes for Health, Gates Foundation) and amounts otherwise inaccessible to humanities scholars. As a result, it is possible to work as a co-principal investigator or senior consultant and add an essential human-centered perspective to impactful multimillion-dollar projects.

A New Collaborative Model?

I am pretty sure that the integrative models I mention above will not satisfy Mark Bauerlein. He never defines exactly how many humanities studies and faculty would be enough to satisfy his ideal state of the academy. A little like the Spanish empire, he seems to imagine “más, más y más.” From my less agonistically minded “little humanitas window” at a technological university, I propose a model that doesn’t see the STEM disciplines as the evil empire threatening to destroy the academy and humanity. I can envision a flourishing partnership bringing Humanistic Perspectives to our work together with our colleagues in STEM units. For this to happen, of course, the STEM disciplines need to make their own steps toward intentionally welcoming humanities practices and methodologies. And they have been doing just that: “Branches From the Same Tree,” the 2018 consensus report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, establishing that educational programs that mutually integrate learning experiences in the humanities and arts with science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine are linked to positive learning outcomes. Among the positive learning outcomes observed are increased skills in communication, critical thinking and teamwork; improved visuospatial reasoning; improvements in content mastery; increases in empathy and resilience; and improved motivation and enjoyment of learning. Other outcomes include “improved retention, better GPAs, and higher graduation rates.” Furthermore, the 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 Academics have made wide-ranging recommendations for future interdisciplinary integration at the level of individual courses, certificates and entire degree programs. This is a groundbreaking development, as Laurie Grobman and E. Michele Ramsey recognize in their smart guide, Major Decisions: College, Career, and the Case for the Humanities (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020). Schools and universities willing to consider deepening existing and developing new models of interdisciplinary integration between and among disciplines (including professional education) will establish a distinctive voice in higher education nationally and globally and help prepare students for the rapidly changing needs of the 21st-century workforce .

Why is such a deep and intentional fusion of the humanities and the STEM disciplines essential? In a technological world, human-centered paradigms and creativity should not remain siloed based on the demarcations developed to satisfy the knowledge economy of the late 19th century; and they should also not be artificially sustained at a mere surface level in general education requirements developed in the wake of the two world wars. Instead, they deserve to accompany and shape new educational technology, work in concert with STEM disciplines, and communicate and forcefully affirm their relevance and value as part of a newly holistic educational experience.

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