What Matters in Humanities Education

Since we like to talk about teaching here too, readers might be interested in my report on the Teagle Foundation‘s convening on “What Works and What Matters in Student Learning.” The conference specifically addressed the humanities. This link will take you to the web page for the event; scroll down a bit for reports by me and by Ashley Finley of AAC&U. I welcome comments and feedback on what you think matters.

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4 responses to “What Matters in Humanities Education

  1. Many thanks, Laura, for this post and for your report… I hope to comment soon.

  2. Dave Mazella

    OK, I’ll bite. I like the essay because it takes the ordinarily dreary discussion of the “future of the humanities” into a more synthetic, holistic direction. Literature is seen in the broader contexts of other competing disciplinary frameorks, the contemporary research university, in the classroom, etc. The result, I think, is that it allows a less repetitive, more reflective approach to the problems.

    My takeaway is that what seems to matter most–or work best–is not a particular assemblage of works, authors, genres, etc. (because these are highly contingent), but a deliberate pedagogical strategy pursued with appropriate primary and secondary sources leading to some conscious educational outcome, though this cannot be overly specified, either. I also agree that this notion of the pedagogy trumping the academic specialist identity is off-putting, especially when the pedagogy argues for a much more collaborative, engaged, process-oriented approach than we are used to in literature departments. I’m not surprised when people decide they cannot tolerate this kind of threat to their identities.

    This is usually where I make an argument for the value of a multidisciplinary perspective on literature, but today I’ll just suggest that if we want to really preserve the “historical specialty” in literary studies, we’ll have to double down and really try to specify precisely what an immersion in (and hopefully understanding) of the languages, concepts, genres, cultures, institutions, artworks etc. of “our” era really does for other important social traditions and knowledges we wish to retain some working contact with: literature, democracy, “enlightenment,” etc. What do they mean when put into contact with the writers and works we are most familiar with? And all of this is to say yet again that “engagement” might be the best way to re-learn this history.

  3. I’m sorry to just now be getting to this, because it’s really terrific and inspiring. I agree with Dave’s specific praise and second your diagnoses from deep within a frustrating and enlightening bout of gen ed reform at my school.

    I do think these discussions could benefit from a greater, and perhaps more humble awareness that everything we keep ‘discovering’ about the pedagogical advantages of engagement, active learning, partnership, relevance and so on has been knowable throughout the history of the humanities since Socrates, and more recently since Dewey (who, by the way, was himself a straight lecturer). So apparently there are deeply rooted subcultural conflicts over what matters and what works. As Merton reminds us, if a system’s manifest function keeps ‘failing’ over the long term it’s worth considering whether its latent function might actually be succeeding. The identity conferral and authority ratification you point to are plenty to suggest a Foucauldian disciplinary dynamic and look! There it is in what we call ourselves.

    I also think these conflicts of concept and practice are constitutive. So as one small example, it’s worth thinking about why your opening gesture against athletics and climbing walls is so rhetorically appealing. It’s trivially obvious that those things are part of the evolution of mass education and campus cultures oriented to attracting and retaining students who are not geekily monocultural about the book larnin’. We could do without those things in exactly the proportion we could do without all of the expansion of higher education of the last half century, which means we could do without them in exactly the proportion we could do without our jobs. I could go into much more detail about this, but my point is that fulminating against them is to everyone but a certain kind of humanities professor fundamentally clueless, ‘not even wrong’ as the engineers say; at best a kind of nerd Tourette’s and at worst plain incompetence, a failure of exactly the skills of critical analysis we say we’re best at.

    So what’s going on there? Well, my anecdata suggests that those of us who have been geekily monoculturized in the approved ways are, by original disposition, training, or both, locked in resentful combat with people whose interests are broader or just ‘other’, and that this conflict is expressed in a whole variety of ways in our practices. Which does help to explain why so many people associate us with unpleasantness. But in any case, I think it’s worth thinking about what it would look like to embrace our students as whole people who also like climbing things, and maybe even let them teach us a thing or two, if for no other reason than anthropological reciprocity.

  4. Hi Carl, I don’t really argue with your idea of embracing students as people (who could? I wonder) but I do think it would be easier to think and act this way if we did not have the conflicting imperatives of accountability (which compartmentalizes and instrumentalizes learning) and public “service” (in which we search for ever-broader rationales for intellectual work that seems destined for no particular public). So how are we supposed to square this circle, in the public institutions we currently inhabit? The climbing walls etc. are there to make sure plenty of students are there too, but the “more with less” management style almost always affects academics rather than other, more public parts of the university. Certainly the focus of accountability is on getting more “productivity” (read: teaching) out of teachers, as opposed to football coaches. I’m all for the expansion and democratization of higher ed, but what we’ve seen in the last few decades doesn’t necessarily translate into increased opportunities or access to high quality instruction.