Cross posted on my personal blog on March 9.
That the humanities need to innovate in order to survive the inevitable restructuring of college education has been argued eloquently by many others. Humanities students leave the university with a set of skills that are hard to quantify, often being described as the ability to "work hard" and, if everything went according to plan, to analyze and write about ideas.
For our upcoming Digital Pedagogy class, Mills Kelly has asked us to read his series on the History Curriculum in 2023. There he argues for the addition of "Making, Mining, Marking, and Mashing" into the history curriculum as a way of addressing the need to make a history degree relevant in a digital economy. I think this is a very useful framework, and it got me thinking about what exactly it is that a college degree in any of the humanities provides to students and to the companies that hires them.
A quick glance around the tech world reveals a growing ambivalence about the college degree. Bracketing for the moment questions about conflicts of interest, a blog post from last October on the Treehouse blog, a site that I have used to teach myself web development, highlights this ambivalence. While Michael Watson grants that there are some benefits to the college degree, including the chance to "make friends and develop soft skills that can help you in various ways for the rest of your life," getting hired for web development does not require such a degree. The implied point is that the skills you need to be a successful web developer are not skills you learn in college.
While this may be the case to some extent, and it is very hard to find university courses that fit the needs of the ever changing technology field, this piece, and others like it, have me thinking about what the "value add" of a humanities degree really is. How might humanities education help prepare students for jobs in the digital world.
My assumption here is that humanities students tend to be interested in creative work. Whether that work be writing or publishing the next great novel, interpreting historical sources, or debating what constitutes the "good life," those of us who are drawn to the humanities are interested in exploring, creating, and understanding cultural products. We live in a world of narrative and of analysis, creating and parsing meanings in texts, in images, and in cultural artifacts of all kinds.
I am also assuming that the web is coming to house a growing percentage of the creative job in the current economy. Not only does the web offer new opportunities for creating and presenting creative content, but existing creative markets, such as publishing, are increasingly moving their operations online and requiring technical skills from their employees.
So, given an interest in creative work, how does a degree in the humanities prepare students for digital jobs in ways that learning only technical skills does not?
I posit that one of the "value adds" of a humanities degree is training in the analysis of stories, the ability to identify the assumed, implied, and explicit commitments at work in the narrative presented. While the web is pulling storytelling beyond the presentation of text on the page, everything from websites to web applications are offering the reader a story about the world and peoples' place and possibilities therein. The ability to identify and evaluate that story is a necessary skill both for creating a story appropriate to ones goals and for offering necessary criticism of stories that perpetuate injustice or reinforce problematic power structures or simply fail to tell a compelling story.
Coding websites and applications does not in itself require a college degree. But a college degree, particularly in the humanities, helps one think critically, express ideas coherently, and makes one aware of the cultural heritage that one is building from and is in conversation with. Our cultural heritage is both positive, in that we are building on the achievements and understandings of those in the past, and negative, in that the injustices and prejudices of the past influence possibilities in the present and must be engaged critically. Studying literature, philosophy, history, language, art helps us recognize the assumptions that are informing our creative work and communicate what those assumptions are and why those assumptions are important to those around us.
These are the skills that the humanities degree as it already exists can bring to the world of web development. What an emphasis on digital humanities can bring is both practice applying the close reading skill of the humanities to digital narratives and the technical skills necessary to create the digital content that is in ever high demand in the current economy. This would involve shifting assignments towards the creation of a portfolio of digital work that the student could use to showcase their digital skills. It would also involve asking students to write critically about their own design and narrative decisions and asking them to evaluate the decisions of others. Such assignments, in addition to those that teach the fundamentals of critical thinking and informal logic along with close reading, historical thinking, or philosophical inquiry, would help students both learn how to think critically about narrative, culture, and ideas as well as apply those critical thinking skills to digital products.
This is not to say that all humanities degrees need to be digitally focused. But it is to say that, for the humanities student that is interested in entering the world of web development or other creative fields that have a substantial digital component, a digitally focused humanities degree is particularly well situated to provide a foundation in the diverse range skills necessary for success.