A case for humanities: Seeking paths for greater connection and interdisciplinary studies

By in Culture/Features

“How are you going to get a job with that?” If you study the humanities or the social sciences you’ve probably heard some variation of this question before from your parents, your friends or a genuinely concerned relative.

In my own experience, I came to the humanities and the social sciences through my love of writing and textual analysis. I’m in the middle of a political science and philosophy double major, and I still have no idea what I’ll be doing when I’m done. It’s an odd feeling knowing that the one thing you’re good at is basically a non-factor in the private-sector job market.

In order to get a better understanding of the perceptions of the liberal arts at the University of Saskatchewan, I spoke to as many people as I could about the current state of the humanities at the university. Rather than a comprehensive study, I sought focused perspectives to serve as a jumping point for further discussions about the liberal arts.

Contributing to the canon of humanities research may seem daunting, especially in an undergraduate program, but many universities across North America host undergraduate-research conferences in order to encourage undergraduate students to begin thinking about their research earlier in their careers.

Sheldon Alderton, a philosophy and political studies major at the U of S, has presented at conferences like this at both Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts and Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia. Alderton has presented a total of three papers across the two conferences he has attended.

He credits his experiences at these conferences for his recent interest in academia as a potential career, something that he says came as a surprise to him. Alderton also views the conference circuit as beneficial for students who want to enhance their academic output, even if they don’t see themselves in academic careers in the future.

“It’s just such a rewarding and fun experience and a way to enhance your coursework. Rather than just writing papers to get a grade, you can go on and do extra work on these things and further research on things you’re passionate about at the undergraduate level,” Alderton said.

For the Thompson Rivers University conference, Alderton was approved for funding from both the International Student and Study Abroad Centre and the U of S department of philosophy. For his second trip, however, as he had already used his annual allotment through ISAAC, Alderton was only able to secure funding from the political studies department.

Despite the overall positive experience, Alderton notes that funding was difficult to find on campus. Through his own experience in soliciting funds, he hopes to work to make the process more transparent and accessible for other students who want to attend conferences.

“Letting students know that what you do in class can carry over into opportunities like this is a really good starting point,” Alderton said. “It’s [about] those frameworks that are there, like the ISAAC travel award.”

 

 

On a smaller, local scale at the U of S, student groups such as the Philosophy Students’ Society have been holding student colloquiums to generate interest around undergraduate research and encourage students to present their work to an audience. Jory Chometsky, a computer science major with a minor in philosophy, recently presented a paper at one of these colloquiums.

Chometsky presented a paper on German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. The paper analyzed Heidegger’s concept of “being for others” and offered an authentic way of being under a Heideggerian framework. Chometsky describes the experience of presenting the paper as being useful in a variety of ways

“I think it was valuable in a few different ways. The first thing I [learned] was how to make my paper available to a wider audience, and the thing that’s more obvious is just the act of presentation itself,” Chometsky said.

Conferences and colloquiums may help those who are already sold on the humanities as an area of study, but what about improving outside perceptions towards research in the humanities?

Dr. Derek Postnikoff is an interdisciplinary professor who recently gave a talk on the history and potential future of the liberal arts. As an interdisciplinary professor, Dr. Postnikoff says that he is aware of the academic rift between the more professional and vocational areas of study and the humanities.

Dr. Postnikoff sees this rift as being caused, in part, by a perception of utility but also by language and politics. In his talk, he advocates for a simple rhetorical change — changing the liberal arts to the “liberating arts.”

The purpose of this change is twofold, Dr. Postnikoff says. First, the political connotations of the word “liberal” may deter people with alternative political views from humanist areas of study, and second, the idea of “liberation” includes other areas of study that also encourage and facilitate the development of free thinking, such as math and logic.

“Not only does it move away from the partisan political term, but somehow, the phrase ‘liberating arts’ sounds to me like a defence against the dark arts, which is more of what I’m thinking — [defending against] mindlessness and being able to defend against people who would deceive us, con us or manipulate us,” Dr. Postnikoff said.

Outside of these rhetorical changes, Dr. Postnikoff also believes that media may be the key to communicating complex humanist ideas.

The Matrix was a big influence on a lot of people, and it doesn’t give the full details of some of the philosophical theories, but it asks ‘what if?’ These ‘what if?’ type questions in science fiction, and that kind of hypothetical and counterfactual reasoning, is a big part of the liberation I have in mind,” Dr. Postnikoff said.

Dr. Postnikoff believes that the liberating arts should be understood as closer to the way the liberal arts were during ancient and early modern times, when the definition of liberal arts included geometry, music and astronomy. He envisions a future where both liberating and vocational educational methods intertwine and inform each other.

Dr. Postnikoff says that he would ideally like to see more of a historical and philosophical component to the trades and the sciences, but he hopes that the humanities also strive to include more marketable skills.

“There’s a certain tendency for people to think of the humanities as being pure. As soon as they have something to do with vocations or being applied, then they failed in some way, but on the other hand, you don’t want to reduce it to that either. You don’t want to be painting the Mona Lisa for an ad campaign,” Dr. Postnikoff said.

While Dr. Postnikoff argues for applicable communication skills such as math, logic and programming to make their way into humanities degrees, he also believes that a degree in the humanities should be as intrinsically rewarding as it is applicable.

For Brendan Swalm, a U of S alumnus who holds master’s degrees in both English literature and science in digital humanities, the practical skills found in applying digital research methods to the humanities have proven to be marketable, but he also believes that humanities research should be interpretive at its core.

“I’m very skeptical of the vocationalization of humanities educations, especially in English literature,” Swalm said. “It might be easy to push it too hard and say ‘you need these [programming] skills to be a good humanist.’ They help, but it’s supplemental to a good humanities education. I don’t think it’s necessary to be a digital humanist if you’re a humanist.”   

Before completing his master’s in digital humanities, Swalm worked on a research project at the U of S Digital Research Centre, using digital qualitative research methods to mark up and analyze The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

For his second master’s degree, Swalm chose to create a digital version of an Icelandic short story, complete with the original manuscript and translation notes that are usually only available to researchers. According to Swalm, these types of resources are mostly useful for other humanities scholars, but many people interact with the digital humanities in other ways.

“People engage with a lot of digital humanities-adjacent stuff like digital literature and new media or video games. They all kind of brush up against this stuff, but when you think about digital humanities, it’s still very much a part of the academy,” Swalm said.

Swalm also speaks of the benefits that his digital humanities background has provided him with.

“The way I see that education, for me, is it helped me become a better humanist and a more well-rounded professional,” Swalm said.

With regards to the future, the type of skills that come with degrees in the humanities may become more coveted by employers. Alderton is optimistic about this possibility.

“If we’re moving into a more knowledge-based economy, the humanities are going to play a massive part in that,” Alderton said.

Regardless of whether humanistic research is going to provide sought-after skills in a changing economy for those who study the humanities — whether as their main area of expertise or as part of an interdisciplinary education — the act of research and study is itself a rewarding experience.

Cole Chretien / Culture Editor

Graphics: Jaymie Stachyruk / Graphics Editor