Modernizing the Humanities

 How the disciplines can endure by becoming more inclusive of diverse perspectives 

In a world in which so much emphasis is placed on employability, the humanities are an outlier. The growing perspective that the purpose of a college education is solely to train for and secure a job has led to much criticism of humanities disciplines for not producing technical, employable credentials. This scrutiny, coupled with widespread budget cuts, has meant these disciplines have often been the first to get the axe. 

Yet, despite declining enrollments, sweeping cuts to programs and departments, and more focus being placed on STEM fields, the humanities — if you ask many working in the fields — serve a critical function. 

“The arts and humanities teach some essential things that we need in the world today,” says Bonnie Thornton Dill, PhD, dean of the University of Maryland’s (UMD) College of Arts and Humanities. “They teach empathy, they teach cultural awareness, they teach cultural competence, and they teach people to communicate clearly — both in a written form and orally. That should not be minimized because a lot of times the misunderstandings and miscommunications that occur happen because people don’t communicate clearly.”

Catherine Knight Steele, PhD, assistant professor of communication at the college, agrees. She believes the disciplines serve a vital role when it comes to communicating and fostering human connection. “The humanities provide us a mechanism to see each other in our fullness, to recognize how our history shapes our present and future, to cultivate communication practices like deliberation, to speak and think with cultural awareness and appreciation, to read and imagine a world different from our own, to see our experiences as a part of a larger human fabric, and to challenge ourselves to create a more just society moving forward,” says Steele. 

These abilities in particular are crucial for navigating today’s increasingly diverse but also distinctly divided world. Yet, as postsecondary enrollment becomes more diversified, the perceived value of the humanities has continued to wane. According to Humanities Indicators, a project of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, almost every humanities discipline experienced a decline in the number of degrees awarded from 2012 to 2015; during that time, the number of those conferred dropped nearly 10 percent. This decline has been occurring at many schools across the country. 

In 2016, Western Illinois University cut several programs, including religious studies and philosophy — a decision it blamed on low enrollments. This year, the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point is considering a proposal to eliminate 13 humanities and social sciences majors due to a $4.5 million budget shortfall — a move that is being protested by students and local lawmakers alike. To potentially be terminated are foundational fields such as English, history, art, and geography as well as languages, including Spanish, all of which the university says will be replaced by “technical” and advanced degrees. 

Drastic cuts to humanities programming has led some to question how colleges and universities can welcome increasingly diverse student bodies without also emphasizing the study of language, art, and culture. This concern has given rise to speculation that the dilemma now facing the humanities may be due in large part to minimal focus on diversity by those in the field. Although overall college enrollment has experienced a shift in demographics in recent years, the same cannot be said for most schools and colleges of humanities.

In 2015, just 22 percent of humanities undergraduate degrees were awarded to students from underrepresented groups, according to Humanities Indicators. Additionally, African Americans earned only 9.2 percent of all such degrees that same year. 

The key to ensuring the relevance and sustainability of the humanities now and into the future, some argue, is more intentional efforts to recruit individuals from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups — both students and faculty. One way to accomplish this goal is through a diverse curriculum. 

At UMD, the College of Arts and Humanities has also experienced some dips in overall enrollment, but according to Dill, the number of underrepresented students has been increasing since 2010. She believes a focus on diversifying the curriculum has helped the school attract both a diverse faculty and student body. 

“Diversity is embedded in all we do in the College of Arts and Humanities,” reads the introduction on the diversity page of UMD’s humanities website. The college’s offerings are expansive: 30 degree programs ranging from Jewish studies to Spanish language, literature, and cultures; 11 certificates, such as LGBT studies; a long list of diversity-focused courses (students are required to take two); six research centers, including the Latin American Studies Center; and cultural organizations and offices. According to the most recent data, the college’s enrollment is 28 percent students of color. 

“We see ourselves as trying to prepare our students for an increasingly diverse, multicultural, and global society,” says Dill. “So, in terms of the ways in which we teach literature, language, history, and art, … diversity is a part of [all that].”

Much of this focus is the result of an intentional effort by Dill to assess “where we were as a college in terms of our diversity,” she says. “Diversity in terms of people, in terms of faculty and students, in terms of our curriculum — just on a number of levels. I [made] it very clear that this was something that was a priority for me as dean.”

Key to ensuring a robust and diverse curriculum has been maintaining a multicultural faculty. “It involves diverse faculty [members] who bring a variety of knowledge bases, backgrounds, and experience to their fields of study,” Dill explains. “Having a diverse faculty that wants to teach about these issues is so important because they’re often the ones both generating new ideas as well as [injecting] new ideas into traditional courses.”

This chicken-and-egg scenario raises some questions worth considering: Does having a diverse curriculum help attract more diverse students and faculty, or does a diverse campus community result in a diverse curriculum? A difficult question to resolve, the answer may be a little of both. At UMD’s College of Arts and Humanities, the administration and faculty don’t take either for granted. 

To deliver on its commitment to hiring people from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, the college requires that all search committees designate a member to monitor the outreach process to ensure a diverse pool of candidates. Additional aspects of its Inclusive Hiring Project are training for all committee members, the sharing of diversity data to use as a measure in the hiring process, and special funds for making offers to underrepresented minority candidates. “We’re monitoring the process,” says Dill. “We’re not telling people who to hire; we’re just making sure that they have as broad and inclusive a pool as possible.” Once a new faculty member is brought on, the college offers mentorship as well as teaching support to aid in retention, she adds.

This sense of the value that diversity brings to higher education pervades the entire College of Arts and Humanities community at UMD. For Steele, it has meant being mindful of her own identity and how it factors into her courses and the classroom. 

“Becoming a better teacher … has taught me about how the facets of my identity that are privileged — for example, being cisgender — also factor into my work and how much more effort I need to put into those areas,” says Steele. “Part of growing as an educator is finding the parts of you that need retooling to provide a better classroom.” Some of this effort involves including a wide range of authors, perspectives, and topics in course content as well as focusing on issues that affect underrepresented and marginalized groups. 

“Every class I teach and have taught is based on the ability of students to see themselves and the world around them in the material we discuss in class,” Steele explains. “I am intentional about my syllabus, including work from people from traditionally marginalized communities. This is especially important when teaching about [these] communities. Students need to understand that black and brown folks aren’t just subjects for the students — they are scholars, artists, and authors whose work is valuable to their education.”

Professors like Steele aren’t the only ones who have pushed for an increased focus on multiculturalism in humanities curricula; students have as well. In 2016, students at Seattle University’s Matteo Ricci College held a 22-day sit-in to voice their complaints about the curriculum, arguing that it focused too much on “dead white guys” and demanding that it be diversified. 

Dill says UMD has experienced similar demands, specifically that more money be allocated to diversify the curriculum and to programs such as women’s studies, LGBT studies, and African American studies.

This experience of not having many perspectives with which one can associate is something to which Steele can relate. “I was once the only black student in many of [my] undergraduate and graduate courses and know very well what it means to see your life experience written out of your education,” she says. “We often rely too heavily on a canon of literature that excludes certain groups, not because they haven’t done important work that should be covered in the classroom but because our own training didn’t provide us the tools to recognize their value.”

Students have been playing an important role in drawing attention to such curricular disparities. At Reed College in Oregon, a heavy focus on the ancient Mediterranean in the college’s HUM 101 class — a yearlong interdisciplinary course required of all freshmen — compelled students to speak up. They staged demonstrations to voice their grievances about the syllabus, claiming that the course included too many white male, European authors. 

“[HUM 101] has always been contested because it’s the only required course on campus, so it’s kind of a flashpoint for this type of thing,” says Elizabeth Drumm, PhD, the John and Elizabeth Yeon Professor of Spanish and Humanities and outgoing HUM 101 program chair. “It gives students insight into in-depth, college-level study of the humanities, of humanistic questions, of what it means to be human. These are perennial questions, and what we do at Reed is look at them through an interdisciplinary lens. But I would say, in the last four to five years, [opposition to the course] has become more vocal and more pressing.”

After the issue came to a head in August 2017, when student protestors — a group called Reedies Against Racism — interrupted the class, causing some professors to walk out, the college worked to revamp the course. According to Drumm, faculty met on 32 separate occasions over the last year and a half to revise the syllabus. The updated course will now be presented in four modules, two of which will still focus on the ancient Mediterranean. The second half, however, will explore the history and literature of 16th- through 20th-century Mexico City and Harlem in the early 20th century. 

“We’ve moved to a four-module system, which I think frees us up to be a little more flexible to incorporate different traditions, different contexts, in a way that I think is exciting,” says Drumm. “Mediterranean materials are incredibly rich and … teach beautifully, and there are all sorts of reasons to keep them. But that doesn’t mean that the humanities are only focused on the ancient Mediterranean and that we can’t focus on the Americas and turn to more contemporary material.”

In June, Reed was awarded a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to further develop HUM 101 to ensure its continued inclusion of many different cultures and perspectives. 

The College of Arts and Humanities at UMD is also making a point to do this. Through a new initiative, it aims to make the digital humanities more inclusive of African American history and culture. 

The African American History, Culture, and Digital Humanities (AADHum) Initiative brings together “students, faculty, librarians, museum curators, independent scholars, and practitioners [to] work from a playing field where each is respected for the differentiated expertise they bring,” Steele says. 

Also made possible by funding from the Mellon Foundation, AADHum seeks to broaden the conversation around “new theories, methods, and tools to explore African American art, labor and migration” via research, according to the initiative’s website. In addition to meeting a need and ensuring the future of the humanities, Steele says AADHum asks difficult questions “about who we have long considered human as a part of our study of the humanities, whose records are missing from our historical accounts, which cultures we have centered on in our work, and how our work benefits all of humanity rather than a privileged few.”

“We orient ourselves around the question of what happens when we place underrepresented groups and histories at the center rather than [at] the margins in our work,” she says. “In this case, we are intentional about centering African American history, culture, and people in the work we do, rather than as an add-on to fulfill a diversity requirement.” 

If the humanities are to endure, this type of deliberate approach will be necessary to ensure a field that is welcoming and inclusive of all individuals and groups as well as one that prepares students to do the same. 

“One of the things the humanities trains our students to do is to be world-wise, to be able to interact with people from a lot of different settings in a lot of different ways,” says Dill. “The diversity among the students and faculty, and within the curriculum, is one of the things that challenges people to be flexible, to be open-minded to … ideas, concepts, and beliefs that may be very different from their own — [not necessarily] … to agree with them, but to understand them.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor-in-chief of INSIGHT Into Diversity.