Making the Case for Studying the Humanities in a Time of Crisis: A Two-Part Webinar

We recently hosted a two-part webinar entitled Making the Case for Studying the Humanities in a Time of Crisis. For more than a year now, we’ve been researching the field of undergraduate humanities recruitment, identifying compelling initiatives, effective strategies, and leaders in the field. We gathered six of those leaders—three deans followed by three humanities center directors—to discuss how the pandemic, severely strained budgets, and the national reckoning with racial injustice are changing the context in which they work to attract more students to the humanities.

Our first discussion, “The View from the Dean’s Office,” focused on how deans representing a range of institutions are adapting the strategies they’ve honed to speak to the moment. Jeffrey Cohen of Arizona State University shared how he is leveraging a dynamic marketing campaign grounded in a survey of 800 students to confront student concerns about job prospects with data while tapping into students’ deepest aspirations with punchy messages like “forge your future,” “answer global challenges with empathy and creativity,” and “connect your passion to your career.” Lena Hill, dean of the College at Washington and Lee University, described how she grow majors and enrollments through a dual approach: working with faculty, admissions, and career services to better articulate how humanities disciplines equip students for a wide variety of careers while emphasizing how the current moment highlights the moral imperative of delving deeply into the complex problems we face through the humanities. And in the context of our current economic crisis, Debra Moddelmog of the University of Nevada, Reno emphasized establishing interdisciplinary connections with other schools and helping each department identify applied pathways and internships to help students make direct connections between their studies and compelling career paths.

Our second virtual event, “The Role of the Humanities Center,” continued the discussion about strategies for signaling the professional, social, and personal utility of a humanities education in the current context, while delving into the particular structures, programs, and strategies humanities centers can leverage to further this work. Jean Allman of Washington University in St. Louis described how the neutral ground of the Center for the Humanities had proved fertile for deeply interdisciplinary minors in medical humanities, children’s studies, and an emerging program in urban humanities. Sylvester Johnson, founding director of Virginia Tech’s relatively new humanities center, cast a vision for curricular and co-curricular programs to place the humanities at the center of a conversation about human-centered innovation at a comprehensive technological university. And Case Western Reserve University’s Peter Knox provided a detailed summary of the Baker-Nord Center’s efforts to recruit more students to the humanities, foster humanities identity and community among students through its cohort program, and connect students to exciting career opportunities through Humanities@Work.    

An overarching theme of these discussions: while the humanities community faces considerable challenges along with the rest of higher education, this pivotal moment of cultural and economic upheaval has also created openings to demonstrate the enduring value of the humanities anew. Panelists pointed to fresh opportunities to assert the need for all students to grapple with the history of racial injustice to achieve a more just society and highlight chances for students to reflect on existential questions raised by their experiences of the pandemic. And they discussed how in this context, the current economic crisis may, in stark contrast to the Great Recession, lead students and parents to reevaluate their assumptions and better appreciate how the adaptable skill set acquired through the humanities provides a strong foundation for an uncertain future.

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