Saving the ‘fuzzy’

Oct. 20, 2011, 3:02 a.m.
Saving the ‘fuzzy’
(AUBRIE LEE/The Stanford Daily)

Techie or fuzzy? It’s a deceptively innocent question, but on a campus in the heart of Silicon Valley, the voices of the humanities can easily be lost in the technical buzz and clamor of industry.

According to Debra Satz, senior associate dean for the humanities and the arts, the decline in humanities enrollment has been a long and enduring trend; and Stanford programs are determined to reverse the trend.

The steady decline in the humanities can be traced back to as far as the 1960s and 70s. For Stanford, the 60s were the golden age for humanities — more than a third of the students majored in the area. Fifty years later, while enrollment for science and engineering classes have grown tremendously, humanities enrollment continues to slip.

“About 17 percent of students at Stanford major in the humanities,” Satz wrote in an email to The Daily. “We have a declining number of students taking classes in the humanities beyond the mandated requirements like IHUM.”

Stanford’s flagging numbers in the humanities are an anomaly in the United States. According to a survey conducted by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the number of humanities bachelor’s degrees has actually experienced healthy growth over the last decade after experiencing a slight depression.

Some argue that the strength of the humanities — at least in the eyes of the public — is simply dwarfed in comparison to the gargantuan science and engineering departments.

“Stanford has an image problem,” said professor of classics Richard Martin. “People think of it as MIT West, so those who are interested in medieval history or Islamic studies don’t apply here.”

One factor contributing to the perception of Stanford as “the holy land of technology” — so dubbed by medieval history professor Philippe Buc — may come from the relatively small percentage of admits interested in the humanities.

The cultivation of a “techie”-driven reputation, in theory, results in a self-selecting applicant pool that leans heavily toward science and engineering.

“About the same number of our incoming admits say that they are interested in the humanities,” Satz said. “Our applicant pool looks roughly like our admit pool in terms of humanities interest.”

On top of having only a modest number of humanities-inclined incoming students, humanities departments are also faced with the all-familiar force of parental pressure to pick the “right” major.

“I’ve seen firsthand the kind of culture that quickly develops…the peer and parental pressure that pushes students into supposedly ‘vocational’ majors,” wrote English Department Chair Gavin Jones in an email to The Daily.

Given that the lifetime earnings of science and engineering majors are significantly higher than those of humanities majors, the desire for financial stability is not completely unfounded. But Martin warns students against drawing the conclusion that a humanities degree is equitable to financial self-destruction.

“We need to wean people from the idea that humanities are not useful,” Martin said. “You can do a liberal arts degree and still get a job. And I don’t mean like working in a library or going to grad school and wasting five years of your life.”

With declining student interest, humanities departments have been forced to adopt a number of strategies to defend the value of their respective fields and market them to students.

“Professors don’t like to deal with the idea of having to market their field,” Martin said. “But humanities are pushed into that position. We’re fighting an anti-intellectual and vocational mentality.”

Classics has been one of the few humanities departments that have experienced a slow but steady growth, at least partially thanks to aggressive advertising and a strong presence in IHUM and freshman Introductory Seminars. Classics also invested a significant amount of time developing an appealing curriculum. It includes a series of entry-level classes such as classical mythology, which are designed to attract a broad range of students, and brings in senior faculty members to teach classes with low enrollment.

“The hardest sell is Intro to Greek, which usually attracts 15 to 20 students,” Martin said. “We support their interest — they’re getting our most seasoned professors.”

Other departments, such as Comparative Literature, have adopted similar tactics in an effort to make their respective fields more salient to an increasingly technology-oriented society.

For instance, Amir Eshel, chair of undergraduate studies, comparative literature will be teaching a seminar titled “Narrative and Ethics,” which will look at not only traditional forms of literature but also films, television shows and video games as mediums for exploring storytelling.

“The insight we gained in humanities over millennia…we can apply those skills to look at shows like ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ or ‘Dexter’ or ‘The Wire,’” Eshel said. “These shows touch upon issues like drug addiction, role of the media, corruption — issues that are very relevant to this world.”

Other departments are also working to throw off the assumption that humanities are entrenched in the past.

For instance, the Department of History has developed a series of interdisciplinary tracks specially designed to guide students’ academic interests towards a specific career path. Their newest track, “Global Affairs and World History,” is geared toward students who seek to apply their history studies towards a career in government, business and non-governmental organizations.

“Acquiring deep knowledge about multiple parts of the globe, learning to ask probing questions and construct arguments, evaluating evidence and writing and speaking effectively are all timeless skills in a globalizing world,” wrote History Department Chair Karen Wigen in an email to The Daily.

With the advancements in technology leading to globalization, humanities departments also see an opportunity to take the skillsets their students develop and apply them in a more pragmatic setting.

“[Societies] change and develop, but we’re constantly going back to the languages,” said Gabriella Safran, chair of the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages (DLCL). “Students need real literacy and real fluency. Students need to understand just how important it is to become multilingual and global citizens.”

Confronted with declining enrollment in foreign language classes beyond the second year, the DLCL launched a new program that will provide funding to any students majoring or minoring in any department under the DLCL to go abroad and conduct research, a move that Safran hopes will encourage students to take more advanced language classes.

“Our mission is to get half of Stanford students to minor in a modern language,” she said.

Other departments such as English are optimistic that restructuring and developing new curriculum will bolster student enthusiasm while showcasing its versatility in other disciplines.

“We can’t wave a magic wand,” Jones said. “But we can think about offering a course on Harry Potter, or on new media, or on environmental writing, or in the medical humanities.”

The concerted efforts of the humanities departments to add a fresh and interdisciplinary focus to their curriculums will hopefully dispel the pervasive conception that the Stanford students’ academic interests are bifurcated into either the humanities or engineering.

The fuzzy-techie divide is “a myth that’s been made real,” Martin said. “Not only is it really demeaning to ‘the fuzzy side,’ but it’s just an excuse for one side not to [have anything to] do with the other.”

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