UP CLOSE | Humanities face identity crisis

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Photo by Antonia Woodford.

Last May, Yale College Dean Mary Miller called a meeting of all humanities department chairs. Her question for them, she said, was simple: “What are we going to do about the future of the humanities?”

Across the country, the value of a humanities degree has been called into question as more students pursue fields of study they view as “practical” for future careers. Even at Yale, which professors said is buffered by its traditional strength in the humanities, the number of undergraduates majoring in these fields is declining, and humanities Ph.D. graduates are struggling to find academic positions in a bleak job market.

Miller, a professor of art history, continued to meet with department chairs in the fall, as they considered how national trends are affecting Yale and brainstormed ways to ensure the humanities do not become overshadowed by other fields.

These conversations have led to a push by administrators to broaden graduate training in the humanities to give Ph.D. graduates an extra edge when seeking jobs. Meanwhile, some humanities departments are developing new courses that reflect the evolving interests of undergraduates and are changing how they present their majors to better demonstrate to students what they can gain from a humanities degree.

As Yale’s social sciences grow more popular and the University pours resources into improving its science programs, some humanities professors said the humanities must evolve to collaborate more with other disciplines.

“I do think there are inevitably trade-offs — there is a finite number of students,” Classics Department Chair Christina Kraus said. “[But] we need to be a little less ‘doomsday crying’ and a little more upbeat about how to make connections.”

Given the embattled state of the humanities, professors said the University must find innovative ways to keep the humanities prominent in a changing academic landscape.

STEMMING A CULTURAL SHIFT

Though many universities across the country are downsizing humanities departments, more than 30 humanities professors at Yale interviewed said they are generally confident in the University’s continued support. A more pressing concern, they said, is a cultural shift away from the humanities within the student body.

The popularity of many humanities majors has waned in the last decade. History, which was the most popular major in 2002 with 217 graduating seniors, had only 131 graduating seniors in 2011, and political science and economics have surpassed it to become the college’s largest two majors.

In addition, fewer students are majoring in English, American studies and literature than 10 years ago, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research, though the size of some smaller majors such as philosophy, history of art and religious studies have remained steady. Roughly 40 percent of undergraduates currently major in humanities disciplines overall.

Professors and administrators said Yale’s efforts to diversify the student body may be contributing to movement away from the humanities. International students are less familiar with the liberal arts model than their American counterparts, and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may feel added pressure to earn a degree that will likely land them a higher salary, they said, adding that this mindset is spreading among students of all backgrounds.

But Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon said majors in the social sciences are not as “practically-minded” as many students and parents assume, since they are still grounded in the liberal arts. Economics Department Chair Benjamin Polak expressed concern about students entering the economics major solely to prepare them for a career in finance, even though the major is consciously designed not to be preprofessional.

“I can recall many conversations with students who say, ‘Shouldn’t I do economics, rather than literature?’” said Moira Fradinger GRD ’03, director of undergraduate studies for the Comparative Literature Department. “Their concern is mostly how they’ll be able to find a job after Yale, and whether they should follow the advice of their parents and major in economics.”

Professors interviewed said they think students are misguided in their fears that humanities courses will not lead them to a job after graduation. In response to students’ concerns, some humanities departments are reconsidering how to best present their majors to students.

Fradinger said the comparative literature major will add information on its website to highlight possible careers. She added that in an increasingly globalized world, knowing foreign languages and literatures is an “incredible asset” but that students often do not realize how widely they can apply these skills to jobs.

The History Department is organizing its courses into “pathways” to show students in the history major how to form a plan of study organized around a particular theme. The pathways, in areas such as intellectual history and environmental history, are meant to show students they can explore many different topics within history, Steven Pincus, director of undergraduate studies for History, told the News in February.

But Miller and some other professors said they are not overly concerned by the declining popularity of humanities majors, so long as enrollments in humanities courses remain high. Even though a smaller percentage of Yale College students may major in the humanities going forward, the humanities could retain a strong presence though the electives students take. Miller said taking just a few courses in a humanities field can significantly enrich students’ intellectual experience.

Still, undergraduate course registrations in Yale’s humanities departments have fallen steadily over the last decade, from 19,250 in the academic year 2000-’01 to 14,604 in 2010-’11. The downward trend in Yale’s most well-established humanities disciplines is especially dramatic: Annual enrollments fell from 4,448 to 2,259 in history courses and from 3,248 to 2,595 in English courses over the last 10 years, according to OIR data.

Miller said she thinks maintaining strong enrollments in humanities courses depends on excellence in teaching.

Italian Department Chair Giuseppe Mazzotta said he views the decline in the humanities enrollments as an opportunity to re-evaluate course offerings. He said translation skills are becoming increasingly useful, so his department will offer a “Theories of Translation” course and incorporate more translation assignments, such as the translation of movie scripts, into its cultural courses.

Music Department Chair Daniel Harrison GRD ’86 said he does not consider fluctuations in the number of music majors a cause for worry, but that his department should try to “get more students involved in musical study.” Harrison said he would like to reintroduce a course he used to teach on interpreting rock and pop music, which proved popular before he had to lessen his teaching load as department chair.

AN INTERDISCIPLINARY PUSH

While enrollment levels in Yale’s traditional humanities departments have decreased, several interdisciplinary programs that draw on the humanities — such as the “humanities” program, history of science and medicine, and women’s, gender and sexuality studies — have seen growth over the past decade.

The number of enrollments in the “humanities” program jumped from 260 to 695 annually over the last 10 years, according to the OIR. French professor Howard Bloch, the program’s director, said the program was “originally somewhat of an experiment,” adding that it has succeeded because “undergraduates are drawn to broad courses that have meaning for their lives.”

Several professors said more traditional humanities departments should alter their course offerings to account for students’ growing demand for interdisciplinary studies.

“Everyone is saying, ‘God, [students] are all going and majoring in politics and economics.’ Well, OK, let’s study the politics and economics of antiquity, and let’s teach politics and economics something about their own history,” Kraus said of the Classics Department.

Louis Menand, an English professor at Harvard University who has studied higher education, said universities are “trapped” in an outdated departmental structure, and moving towards interdisciplinarity would better facilitate academic research, which already frequently overlaps between fields.

The push towards interdisciplinary study is also central in recent efforts to broaden the scope of graduate training at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Though the number of applications to the Graduate School’s humanities programs has continued to rise, graduate students at Yale still suffer from the nationwide dearth of tenure-track jobs in the humanities.

Graduate students nationwide have reacted to the dismal job market by specializing ever more narrowly, said Pamela Schirmeister, associate dean of Yale College and the Graduate School, but this tactic “has turned around and slapped everyone in the face.” Students emerge from Ph.D. programs with very specialized knowledge on a topic, but increasingly the universities looking to hire them will expect them to be able to teach a much broader area of inquiry, she said.

To combat the tendency toward overspecialization, administrators and professors are working to create opportunities for graduate students to teach and research beyond their individual specialties.

Professors hope to organize a “pan-departmental seminar” in which graduate students from different disciplines would work on “topics of general interest,” Bloch said.

Schirmeister said Yale would also like to give graduate students more opportunities similar to the Associates in Teaching Program, which lets Ph.D. students design and teach an undergraduate course along with a faculty member. She added that graduate students could use this as a chance to teach subjects beyond their dissertation topics, possibly with faculty from other departments.

The University is currently trying to attract a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to help support these types of initiatives, Miller said.

In addition, administrators are building a larger postdoctoral community in the humanities. Postdoctoral positions give students a few years after completing a Ph.D. to further their research and gain additional teaching experience, often beyond their immediate discipline.

For the first time next year, the University will offer three postdoctoral positions in the humanities for students who earned their doctorates from Yale in 2011 or 2012, Miller said. Yale already gained seven postdoctoral fellows in the humanities this year through a program of the American Council of Learned Societies, six of whom will stay at the University for a second year, and three more postdocs funded through the ACLS will arrive next fall.

Miller told the News in March that she would like to see a “critical mass” of postdocs in the humanities at Yale.

AN EVOLVING IDENTITY

Though administrators and humanities professors have intensified efforts to revamp humanities offerings, the humanities do not dominate the intellectual life of the University as much as they have in the past.

During part of the 1920s, English “ruled heaven and earth in Yale College” and more than half of the undergraduate population majored in the subject, historian George W. Pierson ’26 GRD ’33 wrote in a study of Yale College education published in 1983.

Until the middle of the 20th century, talented lecturers in English and other humanities courses outshone professors in other departments, and the University “really lagged” in the social sciences, said Gaddis Smith, Yale historian and a professor emeritus of history.

“After the Second World War, especially on the economics side, there was a sense of, ‘My God, we don’t have any talent here to speak of!’” Smith said. “And so starting with the provost and the president and the [Yale] Corporation, they said, ‘All right, let’s go get some good economists.’”

Since then, the University made efforts to grow its social science departments, and more recently its science and engineering programs.

Political science professor Steven Smith said he feels that the University has begun spreading its attention more evenly across disciplines since he arrived at Yale.

“When I came here in 1984, there was a definite feeling that the social sciences, to say nothing of the natural sciences, were not full members of the Yale family,” he said. “That’s the way I felt, and I don’t think I was alone. In the last number of years, these have all become much more real parts of Yale.”

Steven Smith said even the geography of campus reflects the historical centrality of the humanities: Humanities departments are clustered at the center of campus, with the social sciences further away along Prospect Street and Hillhouse Avenue, and the sciences secluded on Science Hill. He added that plans to build two new residential colleges near Science Hill are of symbolic importance, since they will become a physical “anchor” between the academic divisions.

Administrators said they do not see the development of Yale’s various departments as a “zero-sum game.”

“The rebuilding of a department such as Chemistry, or the expansion of engineering fields, is of critical importance, but it should in no way be understood as representing a change in anyone at Yale’s feeling about the importance of the humanities,” Provost Peter Salovey said.

University President Richard Levin said the humanities continue to play “a fundamentally critical role” at Yale as the University tries to revamp weaker departments. He added that some humanities departments — such as the Classics and Philosophy departments — have had “huge improvements” over the last decade.

Humanities professors said they welcome improvements in other disciplines as long as they do not come at the expense of their own programs. Some professors pointed to projects such as the expansion to West Campus, the 136-acre science research facility located seven miles from central campus that Yale purchased in 2007, as being a “diversion” of resources that could have strengthened other programs.

“[Yale’s] historic strength is in the humanities, and I think to tinker with that formula is potentially to invite big problems,” said Katie Trumpener, director of graduate studies for Comparative Literature. “You can strengthen other parts of the University, but the humanities should stay king.”

SETTING A NEW STANDARD

Professors said Yale’s long-standing strength in the humanities uniquely positions the University to pioneer innovations in how humanities are taught and studied, which could help invigorate these fields nationwide.

“[Yale] is probably the university in the United States that is most associated with the humanities, and it could be so in all the world,” said Dudley Andrew, chair of the Comparative Literature Department. “We don’t want to let that go away, and we don’t want anyone to look at this place and think, ‘Aha, the humanities are dimming at Yale, so they must be dimming everywhere.’”

Miller said she believes it is “incumbent” upon Yale to provide leadership in how universities train graduate students in the humanities and in “how we imagine the role of the humanities in public life.” She cited the “public humanities” master’s program in American studies as an example of how graduate students learn to share their research to communities beyond Yale.

As members of the Yale community engage with the larger academic community, English Department Chair Michael Warner said they should confront the danger that the humanities become too narrowly defined as humanities departments nationwide are pressured to defend their programs.

One way humanities professors already reach beyond Yale’s campus is by showcasing their courses to the rest of the world on Open Yale Courses, the website that makes 42 Yale courses available for free online, said Dale Martin, director of graduate studies for religious studies.

For Philosophy Department Chair Tamar Gendler ’87, the most significant way Yale can support the humanities is by continuing to train graduate students who will become leading researchers and teachers at universities nationwide.

Gordon said Yale should avoid becoming “complacent” about Yale’s pre-eminence in the humanities.

“We should build on our historic success,” he said, “not just coast on it.”

Comments

  • ldffly

    I have three degrees in philosophy, earned in the 70’s/early 80’s. Ph.D. in 1982. My respect for the members of the Yale philosophy department of that era has done nothing but grow. However, I would not study philosophy now. The overall state of the discipline has declined tremendously in the last couple of decades. Maybe that’s something to consider for other disciplines within humanities.

    • RM80s

      The degrees in Philosophy — I knew there was a reason I like the way you think.

      • ldffly

        Uh oh. Now we both have troubles.

    • jpsara

      Philosophy today is best equipped not to analyze whether art, politics or science better portray anything, unless such an analysis helps with the radical rewriting of, and wholesale disembarkations from, long standing theoretical structures. If any philosophy department seems stagnant it is usually due the reluctance or plain in ability of that department to confront the philosophy Gilles Deleuze. The humanities don’t need saving however Humanities professors not informed by philosophical issues raised in the 70s until today might find their lectures and essays missing a particular relevance, or bite, that is needed to satiate a student desire for direction toward real change.

  • inycepoo

    Never were the fights so fierce for stakes so low.

  • JohnnyE

    The growing joke known as political science appears to be drawing students away from the more traditional humanities.

  • Boogs

    All you need to do is look at what Yale has done with Yale-NUS to see how they ‘talk the talk’ but have no clue how to ‘walk the walk’. At Yale-NUS, they had the opportunity to completely redefine disciplinary boundaries, They did not.

    Higher education is a rigid business, generally, and Yale as an institution of higher education is among the most rigid. When so many of the decision makers are, quite frankly, old and out of touch with a rapidly changing world — it’s ludicrous to expect that Yale is the place where the humanities will be saved.

    Yale faculty and administration are deluded by the idea of their own genius.

  • haletinytea
    • Boogs

      Very nice article; thanks for sharing that.

      • ldffly

        I’ll second Boogs.

    • ldffly

      Prof. Karsten Harries in papers and in class, often quotes Hegel from the “Lectures on Aesthetics.” “Thought and reflection have overtaken the fine arts.” Art no longer reveals truth, science does. After reading this article, one wonders if the scientific study of politics is still outrunning art? Is art giving the accurate portrayal as opposed to the poli sci based studies?

      Certainly a plus for humanities. However, I continue to worry about the direction some of these disciplines have taken, philosophy in particular.

  • ML

    THIS IS DELUSIONAL

    ”Humanities professors said they welcome improvements in other disciplines as long as they do not come at the expense of their own programs. Some professors pointed to projects such as the expansion to West Campus, the 136-acre science research facility located seven miles from central campus that Yale purchased in 2007, as being a “diversion” of resources that could have strengthened other programs.”

    “[Yale’s] historic strength is in the humanities, and I think to tinker with that formula is potentially to invite big problems,” said Katie Trumpener, director of graduate studies for Comparative Literature. “You can strengthen other parts of the University, but the humanities should stay king.”

  • Cell17

    The degree to which the Yale administration is contradicting itself is truly embarrassing. The dean of the graduate school released a report last fall in which he encouraged students to begin independent research on a specialized topic in their first semester of graduate school, and now we’re hearing that the administration is emphasizing the importance of general knowledge. C’mon, Yale administrators, get your stuff together! It’s as if you don’t even understand, or listen to, the people who are actually doing this work! (Oh wait…)

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