The URI English Department is thrilled to announce that we have been honored with a large grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The grant, part of NEH’s “Next Generation PhD” initiative, is designed to fund planning for the innovation of humanities PhD programs. URI joins 27 other universities nationwide who received planning and implementation funding, with the goal of better preparing graduate students for today’s competitive array of Humanities career options, both in and outside of academia. As Marcus Cederström has recently urged in an article for Inside Higher Ed, “What’s missing in many humanities graduate programs is the framework that will help us translate the skills we develop, the guidance to do so and the support to pursue employment outside of academe. That has to change. And fast.” This is precisely the exciting opportunity URI’s English Department, University administrators, and both current and future PhD students have in front of them.
Dr. Kathleen Davis describes the grant as “[securing] partnerships, internships, new collaborations, and innovative curricular changes that will prepare our doctoral students to expand their career aspirations and to bring the fruits of Humanities learning to all aspects of civic life.” One of the central objectives of the NEH Next Generation Humanities PhD initiative is to increase cross-disciplinary communication and learning opportunities for doctoral students in five key areas: Coastal Environment, Health & Medicine, Publishing/Editing, Digital Humanities & Big Data, and Cultural Organizations. There are over 40 faculty, administrators, and students working on the grant from at least 10 disciplines (which readers can see here: http://web.uri.edu/nextgenphd/). Generally speaking, then, the task of the NEH committee is to ask two vitally important questions: “Where are the Humanities now?” and “Where are Humanities PhD programs going?” These have been critical questions for the Humanities for decades now, as the death knell for the Humanities has continued to be rung periodically, amidst what seems to be an increasingly Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM)—and digitally-focused world.
News stories about how the skills of Humanities undergraduate majors and doctoral students align with demands of the current job market have begun to appear. As recently as October 2016, Scientific American published an editorial staff-authored essay encouragingly entitled, “STEM is Vital—but Not at the Expense of the Humanities.” In our current moment, we may despair over the corporatization of the university, which seems increasingly designed to prepare students for jobs rather than encourage prolonged critical reflection about oneself or the world. Prominent politicians have not helped: “All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the tax payer,” said governor of Kentucky Matt Bevin), while former Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio declared we need “more welders and less philosophers.” Scientific American supplies a helpful response to such reductive talk:
If . . . advocates of a STEM-only curriculum look more closely, they will find that the student who graduates after four years of pursuing physics plus poetry may, in fact, be just the kind of job candidate sought out by employers. In 2013 the Association of American Colleges & Universities issued the results of a survey of 318 employers with 25 or more employees showing that nearly all of them thought that the ability to “think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems”—the precise objectives of any liberal arts education—was more important than a job candidate’s specific major.
Contrary to what some parents, students, and politicians may think, the difference between STEM and the Humanities is not “useful v. useless.” As the editors of Scientific American show, a Humanities education offers students the opportunity to acquire skills that are not distancing them from current career demands, but are closing the gap as such skills become more and more necessary in a global business market demanding complex, precise communication between international business communities and divergent cultures.
If it is obvious, however, to the editors of Scientific American that the Humanities offers something necessary and, at times, intangible to the success of STEM fields (the “artistic sensibility” of Steve Jobs is the oft-cited example as the captain of industry who knew nothing of the nitty gritty of coding or computer engineering, yet still managed to change an entire technological field), it is still the case that many—like politicians in charge of state education budgets—need convincing of that basic premise. The Scientific American article performs for us, then, a double duty: it shows the value of the Humanities from the perspective of experts and active members in the STEM community (we see the skills that Humanities graduates bring to fields outside of the Humanities). The article also highlights, however, a gap in general understanding about the “usefulness,” importance, and value of Humanities programs and graduates. Recalling our attention to what Cederström writes above, the issue suggests itself as one of “translation.” How can the Humanities translate what we do to outsiders? How can the disciplines of the Humanities ally themselves to STEM disciplines in an effort to make this translation easier? How can we better prepare Humanities graduates to translate their skills more easily to jobs outside of the academy, and show that the depth of our theoretical training asks critical questions? This, perhaps most vitally, is the area where URI and the “Next Generation Humanities PhD” initiative is poised to intervene. With the support of the NEH and the University, we can enlarge the import of the Humanities, endeavor to create a stronger coalition of Humanities and other departments, and look eagerly to a future of the “new” and the “next,” one for which our current and prospective students will be fully prepared to take part in and, ultimately, to shape.
If you—readers—are interested in helping to bring to fruition some of the ideas put forth here (and some of the ideas put forth in planning meetings) please contact Kathleen Davis and/ or sign up for Kathleen Davis’s course next semester on the Public Humanities.