Humanities, Social Sciences Have a Role to Play in a World Dominated by Technology

As the economy rebounded following the financial crisis of 2008, careers in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) sectors became more lucrative; learning to write computer code became not only a career option for tech enthusiasts but also a lifeline for job seekers in an irrevocably altered world. 

In higher education, STEM fields are often the favored beneficiaries of giant funding packages, while the humanities and social sciences are sometimes seen as less relevant for today’s high-tech-focused world. For instance, in 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives’ version of a reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act would have set the National Science Foundation’s grant funding rates for geoscience and social sciences at levels more than $100 million below that of previous years.

[Above: GSEF fellows and speakers from the ACM Annual Summit in August 2016]

But at a time when individuals from diverse backgrounds are coming into contact (and conflict) with one another more frequently than ever before, these disciplines — which deal with human connections — matter more than ever.

According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), the humanities field includes, but is not limited to, literature, linguistics, history, philosophy, jurisprudence, and ethics. The social sciences deal with the social relations of humans and include economics, education, anthropology, sociology, political science, and psychology.

The salary-calculating website PayScale ranks the highest-paying jobs for social science graduates; the top 15 require an economics or political science degree. History and English literature majors earn the most of all humanities grads, as attorneys and editors.

But beyond the viable career options these fields provide, the humanities and social sciences matter when it comes to making sense of cultural and political clashes, understanding people and their behavior (such as the use and misuse of social media), and writing sound policy.

As in most areas of higher education, the demographics of students and faculty in the humanities and social sciences are far less diverse than those of the general population. According to AAAS, graduates from traditionally underrepresented groups earned 22 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in the humanities in 2015. In behavioral science, the percentage was slightly higher, at 26 percent. AAAS also indicates that in 2004 — the most recent year for which data is available — 16 percent of humanities faculty were from underrepresented groups, while 18 percent of health and social sciences faculty were minorities.

To help improve the representation of diverse faculty in the humanities and social sciences — as well as increase the number of underrepresented students pursuing graduate studies in these fields — two consortiums of higher education in the Midwest have partnered to create more opportunities for advancement.

The 14 liberal arts colleges in the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM), together with the 15 universities in the Big Ten Academic Alliance and the University of Chicago, have joined forces to provide mentoring and fellowship opportunities to minorities in the humanities, humanistic social sciences, and arts. With an $8.1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Undergraduate and Faculty Fellows Program for a Diverse Professoriate — a seven-year initiative — aims to develop future and current social science professors and prepare students for careers in the humanities and social sciences.

Brian Williams

The initiative, which launched in 2015, includes three components: the Graduate School Exploration Fellowship (GSEF); Mellon faculty fellowships; and annual meetings, workshops, and summits. Brian Williams, vice president and director of faculty development and grant programs with ACM, says that a major motivation for the partnership was to bring together the innovative and creative thinking skills fostered by liberal arts schools with the scale of research opportunities available at large state universities.

“We also hope that this exposure to Big Ten Academic Alliance universities will encourage more ACM students to pursue graduate work [and then careers] in the Midwest region of the United States,” Williams says.

Eligible students for the GSEF are those in their sophomore year at one of the ACM schools who are either members of a traditionally underrepresented group, are first-generation students, have followed a nontraditional educational path, or have demonstrated a commitment to diversifying the academy. Applicants should also express a desire to complete graduate work in the arts, humanities, or humanistic social sciences.

Lilly Lavner

Lilly Lavner, liaison for the Fellows Program to Diversify the Professoriate at ACM, explains that each cohort of undergraduate fellows receives mentoring at their home institution during their junior and senior years. Additionally, after their junior year, GSEF participants are placed in paid summer research experiences at one of the Big Ten universities or the University of Chicago. They will present their research at an annual summit in Chicago in August.

During students’ senior year, the program funds travel costs and application fees to prospective graduate schools. GSEF is expected to fund five cohorts — a total of 280 students — over its seven-year period.

ACM members, including the first six faculty fellows, at a meeting in January.

Williams says that the Mellon Foundation’s financial support of the program affirms the nonprofit organization’s mission to “defend the contributions of the humanities and the arts to human flourishing and to the well-being of diverse and democratic societies.” Additionally, the foundation’s reputation matters in higher education, as does the fact that the $8.1 million grant is one of the largest contributions it has made to a cause of this type.

“The Fellows Program is, to date, among the most significant single investments, if not the most significant single investment, the Mellon Foundation has made toward enhancing and expanding educational opportunities available to high-achieving students from historically underrepresented demographics within higher education,” Williams says.

The program also includes a postgraduate component, which funds Mellon faculty fellows for their first two years in a tenure-track position at an ACM college. As with GSEF, eligible candidates for the fellowship are those from underrepresented groups, first-generation students, or those with a commitment to diversifying the academy who have already been hired at an ACM school. Lavner says the college may choose to designate its eligible new hire as a Mellon faculty fellow. The first cohort of Mellon faculty fellows included six newly minted professors who taught during the 2016-2017 academic year. Williams says the goal of the faculty fellows component is to increase the pool of diverse applicants across ACM, as well as broaden the scope of course subject matter and classroom pedagogies.

Graduate students and alumni of the Big Ten Academic Alliance or the University of Chicago who meet eligibility requirements and have an interest in teaching at a liberal arts college may apply for a Mellon faculty fellowship via an online portal on the ACM website.

Prentiss Dantzler II

Mellon faculty fellow Prentiss Dantzler II, PhD, was a first-generation college student who grew up in a low-income urban area and was raised by a single parent. Last year he began a tenure-track position at Colorado College in the department of sociology. He says that as an African American man in academia, his background is always present in his work.

This empty lot in Detroit serves as an example of Prentiss Dantzler’s research on urban studies and housing policy for his class “Urban Sociology,” which examines, among other topics, the stratification of neighborhoods as it relates to inequality.

“My research interests in the areas of housing policy and urban poverty are a direct reflection of my personal experiences,” he says. “In many ways, I was not satisfied with the ways in which poor black people were portrayed in poverty studies. I wanted and still aim to create a counter-narrative of urban poverty, particularly as it affects disadvantaged communities. When conducting research, I am not just trying to figure out the nuances of social issues; in essence, I am trying to make sense of my own life.”

Dantzler’s perspective reveals the importance of the humanities and social sciences in a world that grows ever more reliant on technology; human connections will always be an integral aspect of society, and diversity and inclusion will always be key components of human connections.

“Education is not about teaching students facts and the rules of the world. Rather, it is a place for creativity, critical inquiry, and the development of knowledge,” Dantzler says. “The humanities and social sciences are not finite fields. By including diverse perspectives in our academic traditions, scholars can change the ways in which we teach students, conduct research, and aid in the development of social change.”●

Rebecca Prinster is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.