Who Needs the Humanities at 'Start-Up U'?
Stanford says everyone does, and wants to convince the world.
By Mike Antonucci
First, she signed up for a live audition in drama as an arts supplement to her application and landed in front of Dan Klein, ’90, who teaches improvisation in the drama department as well as holding classes and workshops at the Graduate School of Business and the d.school. Not only was that one session “the most fun I’ve ever had at an audition,” notes Jenks, it was a conversion experience. “What Klein showed me is people bringing all kinds of knowledge to the humanities and arts, and it made me think about exploring interests that I might not even know I’ve got.” Jenks felt some bonus gusto when she saw the Stanford Drama and Blackstage Theater Company production of The Color Purple and “was just blown away.”
Other freshmen tell similar stories about having to overcome the impression that Stanford is where you go if you like software better than seminars. That’s understandable, when media reports regularly underscore Stanford’s image as a technological Eden for geeks and entrepreneurs spawning start-ups in dorm rooms. For Debra Satz, senior associate dean for the humanities and arts, it amounts to typecasting Stanford as “the MIT of the West”—regardless of the Farm’s No. 1 spot in Times Higher Education’s 2011-12 World University Rankings of arts and humanities programs.
“So many students are not engaging significantly with what the humanities have to offer, except in a purely instrumental way—choosing the classes that get the general education requirements out of the way and fit into their schedule, which is determined by their other interests,” Satz says. And that’s a problem. “Studying the humanities—deeply engaging with other societies, with other ways of seeing and ways of doing—is important for living in a globalized world. If the humanities become marginal in our undergraduate education, then an important tool we have for understanding the lives of others will be lost.”
At the same time, Stanford can’t ignore the pressures of a wider national context in which students make their choices. In this era of anxiety about graduates finding jobs, the humanities are the subject of an intense debate about relevance and value. In short, humanities majors are suspected of having no “real” or marketable skills. While that notion is given little credence at Stanford, the stigma it can generate is taken seriously. If nothing else, the denigration of the humanities as cloistered or pretentious plays havoc with students’ psyches. Add to that a nationwide push to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics as the key to America’s future well-being—along with buzz about resurgent prospects in the tech sector—and humanities can be a tough sell.
THE RESPONSE of Stanford philosophers, historians and literary scholars has been to saddle up and ride into the fray. The University has launched a number of initiatives to highlight what the humanities offer in both pragmatic and inspirational ways, to strengthen the preparation they provide for careers beyond academia and, ultimately, to position Stanford as a leader in the humanities debates to come.
One innovation begun this year is the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute, which recruited 50 high school students from around the country and beyond for three weeks of university-level coursework. For Stanford, it was an opportunity to showcase compelling lecturers, powerful topics and the campus itself—an experience aimed at shouting, Hello, this is such a different place than you thought it was. The ultimate success of humanities “camp” may not be clear for several years, but Dan Edelstein, an associate professor of French and by courtesy history and one of the two faculty lecturers, says he encountered students who embraced the work so avidly that “they wildly surpassed all of our expectations.”
Behind that payoff was extensive planning. Recruitment letters went out to carefully targeted high schoolers across the nation. Satz, a philosophy professor, composed a separate letter for 500 New York students who might think of Stanford as another planet, essentially saying she had been “a kid from the New York City public schools who got here and actually liked it.” The institute was fee-based but offered significant financial aid, and it was organized with the help of Stanford Pre-Collegiate Studies.
The inaugural institute had two classes, Edelstein’s Revolutions and Winterer’s The Age of Jefferson. “I think next year we’ll expand,” says Satz. “I want to have a philosophy class. I think philosophy has a natural constituency, because it’s not offered in high school and a lot of students really want to do something like that.”
For enrolled students, Satz is working to establish a more deliberate curricular framework. “Students don’t often know what’s an intro-level course and what isn’t,” she observes, in comparison to non-humanities departments with sequential courses along the lines of Science 31, then 32, then 33. “There’s a narrative arc. The humanities kind of gave that up at some point. It’s a little bit of the ’60s—it’s like you could enter anywhere and take anything and there’s no order. And so the students feel like, oh, that just shows there’s no knowledge.”
To remedy that, humanities departments are devising introductory courses. Also in the pipeline is promotional material to give undergrads a capsule view of what different humanities disciplines are all about, in method and wisdom. The upshot, Satz hopes, will be a better articulation of humanities scholarship and a way to address such questions as, “What has philosophy produced that’s worth knowing?”
Administrators also recognize the need to adapt to evolving technologies and expectations. The humanities weren’t represented in the 16 free online courses announced by Stanford for the fall, so Dean of Humanities and Sciences Richard Saller says he’ll encourage some of his faculty members to participate. He acknowledges that it’s unclear how professors can incorporate and assess the written, oral and visual work of humanities subjects as part of a massively enrolled course. Even so, he insists, “We need to take some initiative for online education.”
Colin Milburn, ’98, MA ’99, is the founding director of the Humanities Innovation Lab at UC-Davis and credits Stanford with the right kind of institutional mindset. “Stanford has been at the forefront of discussions about the future of the humanities for a long time now, in terms of curriculum as well as research,” he says, adding that the University’s “extraordinary capacities” in individual disciplines underlie such interdisciplinary innovations as environmental humanities, cultural studies of science and technology, and the digital humanities.
“Recently, I’ve been seeing amazing things happen when humanists work together with social scientists, natural scientists and engineers, each bringing unique resources and tools to the table . . . in order to solve shared problems,” Milburn says. “This seems a very promising trend to me, and Stanford has certainly been playing a prominent role here.”
One upside to whatever Stanford humanities take on is the core stability of their operations. Donor support and faculty recruitment have been strong, notes Saller, buttressed by the Arts Initiative and new buildings that include the Bing Concert Hall.
As for turning around the perception that Stanford is mainly for techies, “I feel justified hope,” Saller says.
Certainly, Stanford has been a base for high-profile advocates for the humanities. For example, a September forum on campus made a vigorous case for the significant role of the humanities in national defense and international policy. The discussion, organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and led by Stanford President John Hennessy, featured numerous accounts of how humanities-honed skills can help shape world events.
Other participants included Hoover Institution senior fellow William J. Perry, ’49, MS ’50, a former U.S. secretary of defense, and Hoover distinguished fellow George P. Shultz, whose four different U.S. cabinet posts included secretary of state. Marine Sgt. William Treseder, ’11, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that in many difficult situations a young platoon leader’s education in subjects such as foreign languages or history—“just something that lets them understand another person’s perspective”—can end up being “absolutely crucial.”
At that event, an appreciation for the humanities seemed fundamental to Stanford’s DNA—as if the University is such a humanities school. But outside similar forums and lectures, there’s often a much different perception. The alternative view, Stanford as technopolis, is easily delineated by a standard 21st-century guidepost: the search engine.
Indeed, Saller recalls that in 2010 he Googled “Harvard humanities,” “Yale humanities,” “Stanford humanities,” and got 4 million sites for Harvard; 3 million for Yale and; 300,000 for Stanford. For “Stanford engineering,” it was 25 million. “So there is a huge, order-of-magnitude gap between reputations if you just use that as a rough yardstick. We clearly have a lot to do in the way of building the perception of our reputation in this area. But that’s a hard thing to do. University reputations have notorious inertia associated with them.”
Dogged, incremental effort is essential to long-term progress but includes an occasional exciting triumph. A case in point is the return to Stanford this fall of art and art history professor Alexander Nemerov, who taught at Stanford for nine years before going to Yale in 2001. When the Yale Daily News reported his hiring by Stanford in February, it pointed out that his introductory course on the history of art was the hottest of the semester, capped at 270 students but with interest indicated by nearly 500.
“It’s just really telling,” notes Saller, for Nemerov “to move back from Yale, which is thought to be the bastion of the humanities.”
Underlying almost every aspect of Stanford’s humanities conversation is a tense duality: A college education is not supposed to be job preparation, but it’s understandable to worry that it isn’t. “I want students to pick the things they love to do,” says Kirsti Copeland, the director of residentially based advising. “And in order to do that comfortably, they need to feel like that isn’t a dead end.”
Satz is one among many who have been pounding home that point. “You can major in French and still have a completely different career,” she argues. Central to her case is that a bachelor’s degree from the humanities doesn’t have to be—and for most Stanford students probably isn’t—a concluding degree. Take classics or linguistics or music, then consider business school, law school or med school. “The humanities are a foundation for anything.”
The benefits Satz is most eloquent in championing range from individual blooms, like confidence and creativity, to a societal flowering. “The humanities are of special benefit for young people searching to understand themselves. They expose us to the ideas and practices central to our own society as well as to alternative ideas within our society and without. And they provide the vocabulary for posing the big questions about truth, justice, responsibility, beauty, among others that should be a core part of a university education.”
ONE OF THE MOST OBVIOUS CHALLENGES for Stanford in the national humanities context is the anxiety felt by graduate students. As the humanities elsewhere face increasing pressure to justify their expense versus science and technology programs, the number of jobs opening for newly minted professors is scant. People spend their 20s immersed in unique or specialized research studies and it leads to—where? Russell Berman, professor of German studies and comparative literature, has become a national voice for an intrepid remedy: reformulating the route to a humanities PhD.
“Last I looked,” says Berman, “the time to degree for a PhD in literature—it’s slightly different for English and the foreign languages—nationally is nine years. . . . We should cut that in half nationally. I think five years is absolutely doable. Four years is not unthinkable.”
“Not everybody,” he says, “can afford what Stanford or Princeton or Harvard can afford. And if we set a standard that is so expensive that others can’t meet it, we’re going to drive them out of the business. And then we’ll just be a small, elite group with no democratic access to advanced study in the humanities. . . . Stanford should alternatively lead toward a reform agenda that keeps the humanities accessible and affordable nationwide.”
Berman’s message, part of a proposal he wrote with five colleagues, has yet to elicit a PhD-revision plan from any individual department. But Saller says more discussion is to come. And, Berman’s group has a second angle to their recommendations: revamping the humanities PhD “as preparation for multiple career tracks, not exclusively the reproduction of the professoriate.”
Recognizing that those with humanities doctorates can and do move capably into nonacademic jobs, says Berman, should also mean enhancing the process. Visiting speakers should include PhD holders who transitioned into industry or commerce. Internships should be arranged in diverse enterprises. Curricula should be bolstered with practical knowledge from fields such as publishing, film and journalism. “Right now,” Berman says, graduate students exit academia for other professions “by the seat of their pants.” It’s time “to recognize that it’s a good thing they do that and therefore integrate that back into our teaching.”
Putting brain to grindstone in this arena is Anaïs Saint-Jude, founder and director of the BiblioTech program at Stanford that’s dedicated to expanding the range of opportunities for PhDs. Saint-Jude, MA ’03, PhD ’11, kick-started her initiative in May 2011, while still a grad student in French literature. She led the first of now annual conferences that serve as formal mixers for humanities scholars and Silicon Valley executives. She has funding from a variety of University offices, including the president’s, and her mission is persuasion: convincing businesses that people with PhDs make strong employees.
“I have to say it’s still slow,” she notes. “In large, stratified organizations particularly, they still find it a challenge to see where a PhD in humanities fits in. But we have to be undaunted.” She more than understands the tensions on the students’ side—she has been there. “Unfortunately, humanities PhD students do have to wrestle with substantial amounts of stress, knowing they are preparing for jobs that may not exist or may not be what they imagined.”
Saint-Jude has three primary goals for the next year: bolster the BiblioTech website by highlighting individual success stories; establish a set of internships with local companies; and coordinate networking events and workshops with the Humanities Center and other University units.
On another front, English professor Jennifer Summit, one of Berman’s co-authors on the PhD-revision proposal, has been supervising a journalism project for humanities graduate students. Students can get paid to write about humanities research for Stanford’s News Service and its Human Experience website. The practice in writing for a mass audience instead of specialized fellow scholars can be eye-opening, and the attention created for interesting research is a plus.
Another initiative at a very incipient stage is an effort by Satz to partner with the School of Education to provide a path for someone obtaining a humanities PhD to earn a teaching credential.
“The humanities have always been about education as a powerful agent of change—true to their roots in the Renaissance, which made teaching and learning the foundation of civil society,” Summit says. “So it’s appropriate that they continue to shape higher education of the future, especially given the central role that humanities skills—like communication and critical, informed discussion—will play in our changing world.”
STANFORD'S ARTS INITIATIVE is expected to be a lure for students from the full range of humanities interests. Its signature components are new performance and art facilities: the Bing Concert Hall, which opens in January; the Anderson Collection building, scheduled to open in 2014; and the McMurtry Building for the department of art and art history, projected for completion in 2015. But the project is not just a niche of riches for art and music majors; its appeal is presumed to transcend disciplinary categories and kindle collaborations from every corner of the University.
One clear signal that’s being sent, comments Stephen Hinton, the initiative’s director and Satz’s predecessor as senior associate dean for the humanities and arts, is how committed and serious the University is about the breadth and passion of its intellectual life. He’s sure applicants will notice. “The English major is not just interested in going to a good English department, but in going to a place that is clearly the best at humanities more broadly.”
Gaining a sense of Stanford’s scope is just as important for many students as tapping into the strength of a particular program. It was the multidisciplinary talents of drama instructor Dan Klein that impressed freshman Saya Jenks, and it is Stanford’s interdisciplinary strength that UC-Davis’s Milburn sees as crucial. Navigating options is part of the educational challenge.
Rodriques is uncertain what he’s going to do after graduation, and he’s not immune from fretfulness about whether he has used his four years to best advantage. “Having said that,” he continues, “I think it made me a lot happier, a lot more intellectually satisfied. Being an English major provided me with both those things.”
It’s the perfect graduating declaration, at least to those immersed in enhancing Stanford’s image as a humanities haven. It’s not easy landing humanities majors, but that seems to be because they don’t know what they’re missing.
“After we get them,” says Satz, “we don’t lose them.”
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Data is from the past two weeks.