English and the Humanities Adapt and Thrive

Submitted by Henry J Laufenberg on

To misquote a famous misquoting of Mark Twain by biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, reports of the death of the Humanities have been grossly exaggerated.  This applies more narrowly to the English department too -- we’re doing just fine, thank you very much!  With leadership from Humanities division dean Brian Reed and thanks to a nimbleness enabled by the English Department’s student and community focus, we have been adapting, and continue to adapt, to economic and cultural shifts in order to make the Humanities more relevant than ever.

UW’s The Daily newspaper has lately been doing some terrific reporting on the topic of changes in the Humanities, often leaning on English department faculty for expert information.  English Matters would like to direct you to reports featuring our faculty, and highlighting how the English Department works with other branches of the university to optimize education and opportunity for all of UW’s students.

Take for starters “The English department: Restoring our faith in the humanities,” a Daily article arguing “in the midst of STEM this and STEM that, here’s why human-centric education is important.”  In it professor Jesse Oak Taylor, our director of undergraduate programs, explains the importance of a diversity of ideas in a real world that doesn’t parse as neatly as mathematical equations.  Professor Taylor notes that businesses value the complex modes of inquiry the English Department teaches: “Places like Google are specifically trying to recruit humanities majors, and specifically building teams where they’ll put an engineer, a historian, and an English major, and a range of people in teams intentionally because they know that’s how creative thinking and problem solving happens.” 

Following up on the above reporting, “The myth of STEM: How UW’s English department builds connections with science and technology is a Daily article asserting that the “vast difference” often perceived between Humanities and STEM majors is an overgeneralized binary, and ultimately false.  Once again featured as an expert, Professor Taylor challenges this fallacy, discounts “the idea that science, technology, engineering, and math are somehow inherently more connected to one another, inherently different from all other fields, and inherently more useful than other fields.  They are also all inherently connected to language, culture, and history.”  Undergraduate education is, in fact, more interdisciplinary, not less.  Humanities Divisional Dean (and the English department’s own) Brian Reed concurs, and enumerates initiatives in the College of Arts and Sciences aimed at bridging any gaps between the humanities and technical fields that might exist.

One of these initiatives is a brand-new Data Science minorThe Daily reports that this new minor “especially welcomes students majoring in the arts, humanities, and social sciences,” and that “the sheer amount of data relevant to various fields such as English or art and design, as well as the existence of free tools to analyze and visualize that data, make these skills highly relevant.”  The new minor includes a data studies component, which focuses on the social aspects of data analysis and usage.  In an effort to build up the data studies component of the minor, the Provost has funded an initiative to support hiring new faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences with expertise in data studies.  Our new English department faculty member, Anna Preus, was hired with support from this initiative, through an unprecedented cross-humanities division search.  Professor Preus will teach English department courses linked with the data science minor and help us develop new humanities data science courses.  We as a department are excited to contribute to this cross-disciplinary minor.

And beyond program cross-over efforts like the new Data Science minor, many existing English department classes recognize and provide for the needs of UW students studying for technical careers.  Take for instance Professor Frances McCue’s (whom you might recall from her recent Geek Wire article exploring the relationship between writing poetry and writing code) capstone course, ENGL 490: Looking Forward: Professionalization and Public Life.  This new course helps students reflect on what they have learned as English majors and translate that learning to various professional careers.  As The Daily reports in “Writers with a Twist of Tech,” McCue “teaches students how to create e-portfolios that not only showcase their skills and work histories, but are also a visible representation of their personalities. ‘The tech industry has evolved so much that projects have grown beyond coding,’ McCue said. ‘Designing a search engine or an app becomes a whole fabric of tools that have to be articulated.’”

English classes can certainly help students master these sorts of articulations.  It would be a mistake though to think of English as a field functioning only in service to more technical majors at UW.  Another Daily editorial in their recent slew of English-centric content, “In Defense of an English Education, the UW’s Hidden Gem,” observes that “there’s a hierarchy that STEM puts out,” and argues that “this conception of English classes is plain wrong. They’re a lot of work, and they’re challenging in ways that STEM classes perhaps aren’t.”  English Professor Colette Moore agrees: “I don’t think that English done properly is less rigorous.  It’s a different kind of thinking, and it’s one that lends itself well to connecting to other kinds of thinking.” As such, a double major with English serving as one pole can create some remarkably productive synergies [“synergies” is editorial diction here, not Moore’s – a word notoriously abused in business jargon, but in this case precise – ed.].  And, of course, a degree in English absolutely has stand-alone value: “I see value in a life of study and of reading books that, to some extent, our society has moved away from valuing in economic terms,” Moore says.

Hopefully the picture developed from the above media amalgam (not to mention new department courses like Critical Literacy in the Natural Sciences as well as Technical and Professional Communication, grounded in ethics, social justice, and intercultural communication) is one of harmony and pertinence, of the English department’s growing and thriving relationships with STEM departments, and of cooperative effort to prepare students for bright futures.  Of course, being Humanities people committed to truth and clarity, we do need to note the familiar old thorn among these roses: though we are closing many other gaps with STEM fields, the funding gap has unfortunately increased.  Addressing this growing imbalance, The Daily quotes Eva Cherniavsky, Andrew R. Hilen Professor of American Literature and Culture and Director of Graduate Studies for the English department, on the loss of public funding for the humanities following the 2008 economic crisis: “The state economy recovered.  Our funding has never been restored.  Part of what we think about in the humanities are questions about identity, and power, and representation, and those seem like pretty current topics to me.”

Current topics indeed, growing more important seemingly daily, and handled as well and as productively in the English Department as anywhere else on campus. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes in The Little Prince that “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”  Beyond all the above enumerations of the English Department’s continuing value, we thank our alumni and community supporters for seeing what is essential about English.  It might, but certainly should not, go without saying that much of what we do in the English Department could not happen without the continued generous support of our greater community and so many of our fantastic alumni.  If you would like to join in, please click the Gifts to the Department of English link, where you can support a wide range of needs not covered by state funding.  All gifts are tax-deductible and truly make a difference, no matter the amount.  From the bottom of our collective heart, the English Department thanks you!