As a faculty member in a humanities discipline at a small liberal arts college, I often find myself having the “what can you do with that?” conversation with students. Now that the fall semester has ended and students are heading back home for the winter break and holidays, many of them are likely to have that conversation with parents, grandparents, friends, parents of friends, and maybe even strangers they meet in transit. So this post is partly for them and partly for larger discussions about the humanities in general and digital humanities in particular.
Students have been subjected to the “what can you do with that?” conversation since at least the expansion of higher education in the late twentieth century, and classic responses abound. My favorite goes like this: All employers want well-educated employees. That means everyone who expects to have a job needs to be able to write coherently, do research, meet deadlines, and solve problems in discrete contexts. Students who major in humanities disciplines learn these skills and thus are prepared to do well in whatever occupation they choose. This response applies not only to the humanities but also to liberal arts education in general. One of my favorite moments teaching First-Year Seminar at my institution involved watching a student begin to understand that higher education is less about going to school for the sake of going to school than it is about taking a few years to learn skills that can be applied in many different contexts. Some of my colleagues in the humanities and in liberal arts education might find such an instrumentalist definition troubling. But I have reluctantly made my peace with an economic climate in which I must try to justify getting paid for doing work that I love by explaining to people in policy positions that learning in the humanities does indeed have practical value. And I’m okay with that.
I first encountered the “what can you do with that?” conversation as an undergraduate myself, and purely by accident I learned that my university offered an opportunity to learn some possible responses. In the early 1980s, Rice had an internship program that placed students majoring in the arts and humanities in corporations. These internships added to the notion that liberal arts or humanities education has marketable value both the principle that skills specific to arts and humanities disciplines have additional value and the information that jobs based on that value do exist in the corporate world. I didn’t do one of these internships myself, but I knew someone who did. The student was an acquaintance a year or two ahead of me, so I don’t remember her name. She made a big impression on me though, and I can still see her face. Active in campus theatre, she might have majored in Theatre or English or Art History–I don’t recall. She played the Leading Player–Ben Vereen’s role on Broadway–in “Pippin” and Desiree Armfeldt–Elizabeth Taylor’s role in film–in “A Little Night Music.” And she did a summer internship working with the curator of an art collection owned by a Houston corporation. Who knew that corporations had collections and employed curators? For members of the What Color is Your Parachute? generation, this program helped expand students’ ideas about what kinds of jobs existed in the world. It helped us learn there were possibilities beyond doctor, lawyer, teacher, engineer.
Noticing that corporations hire curators to manage their collections might also remind us that arts and humanities and the ability to talk about them in interesting ways have an important place in a fully realized world. Most professionals are consumers of art, theatre, literature, history, music, and even philosophy. Such pleasures might seem elite and the audiences for them small, but the post-WWII project of expanding higher education has also increased the potential audiences for all of these. And these audiences will probably continue to grow. Now, Frank Donoghue noted a few months ago in the Chronicle Review that the consumption model does not make an argument for jobs like his and mine–historians and literary critics in colleges and universities. A faculty member at the Ohio State University, Donoghue focused on the corporatization of research universities and the changing place of humanities disciplines in curricula over time. He predicted that the humanities would survive outside the university, in the marketplace. The prediction bears an unpleasant similarity to the one from Edward Bellamy that I wrote about in my previous post, and I can’t get the image of Linus Roche playing the economically struggling Samuel Taylor Coleridge to John Hannah’s successful William Wordsworth in “Pandaemonium” out of my head. If geniuses are not always rewarded during their lifetimes, the outlook is pretty grim for ordinary historians like me.
I think digital humanities offers an alternative to Donoghue’s vision. A field that has a venerable past as well as an expansive “big tent” future, digital humanities can also help us imagine a curriculum in which arts and humanities education can prepare students in liberal arts colleges for digital workplaces. When I talk to students about the digital history projects I ask them to complete in my courses, I explain to them that working on these projects will help them both “do history”–perform historical work that adds to our collective knowledge of the past–and sample skills that give them an idea of what’s “under the hood” on the web. They will learn a little bit about pointy brackets and the code we use to tell computers what to do, and that just might spark enough confidence or curiosity in liberal arts students to do a bit of exploring in programming or web design. Some of them might find ways to parlay experience with using digital tools into skills with writing simple programs. At the very least, they might learn how to navigate a page of HTML code with something approaching ease. Even minimal comfort with the language of the web will add value to their undergraduate degree in History or English or African-American Studies. And whether they find jobs in contemporary analogs of those Houston corporations that participated in Rice humanities internships in the 1980s or engage in the kind of entrepreneurship featured in today’s New York Times article about NYU graduate Scott Gerber’s Young Entrepreneur Council, students who have been educated in digital humanities will leave their liberal arts colleges with real value added. They might even be able to explain that value to their grandparents.