Assessments: To Embrace or Resist?

In what fields do students learn the most? The traditional liberal arts demonstrate the highest gain in student ability, according to data from the 2007 College Learning Assessment test, with the natural sciences and math scoring slightly higher than the humanities and social sciences. Matthew Yglesias argued in a blog post last month, in the wake of the UVa debacle, that recent attacks on the liberal arts as being of little value are misplaced (reproducing a chart from Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (U of Chicago Press, 2011)). As this assessment data suggests, the humanities and social sciences, along with the natural sciences and mathematics, provide real educational value for students. Continue reading

Should Research Be Accessible?

The relevance of research is an implicit topic in a recent blog post (Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog) from Craig Martin, a religious studies scholar at St. Thomas Aquinas College in New York. He questions why scholars outside religious studies often do not engage recent scholarship in religious studies when working on “religion.” He wonders, “Is this because ‘religion’ in the popular imagination is something so naturalized or self-evident that serious theory on it need not be read?” Commenters on his post defend religious studies scholars, arguing that these scholars do not have the power in society to compete with those who resist a critical reading of religion. I doubt that this challenge is exclusive to religious studies, as other scholars, and even moreso the broader population, do not understand the relevance of what many of us do in our research. Continue reading

Relevance of Research for Teaching

As the posts earlier this week emphasize, research in the Humanities and Social Sciences have improved our ability to analyze society and operate within it. Highlighting more examples of these contributions from Humanities and Social Science scholars is important in detailing the relevance of these fields today. However, another related benefit of research is its contribution to our teaching. Continue reading

The Relevance of Research: Religions as Vestigial States

[By Naomi Goldenberg]

My work at present is focused on developing the hypothesis that religions can be productively thought of as vestigial states.  I consider this to be one way of de-essentializing, demystifying and deconstructing the category of religion.  In general, the concept directs theory along two trajectories:  one is the analysis of particular histories in which ‘religions’ are formed or solidified in distinction to ‘states’; another is a focus on classifications which current governments use to delineate spheres of power.  I understand that if the term vestigial state has any resonance, that it will be as a temporary, partial and provisional tool for building theory in critical religion. Continue reading

What About Research?

In many of the discussions of the relevance of higher education, assertions about the benefits of research usually focus on life-saving developments in the natural sciences. These research outcomes, and all of the failed projects that it takes to produce a major discovery, are extremely important, and such projects receive the bulk of private and public funding. In the midst of the various defenses of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the lack of discussion of the research that scholars in these fields conduct is disappointing, as many of us spend a significant portion of our work conducting research that has positive benefits that we need to articulate more clearly. Continue reading

Engaging the Employability Debate

When engaging in the employability debate (which is problematic in its own right), many departments in the Humanities and Social Sciences need to challenge what Gregory Alles calls the “narrow managerial mentality,” the assumption that qualifying for a career requires an undergraduate degree in the field of one’s career. In raising this issue, Alles distinguishes between careers that require “a high percentage of non-transferable ‘hard skills’” and careers that “require the acquisition of a larger percentage of highly transferable ‘soft skills’ and a knowledge base that has both breadth and depth. Most of the specific skills that are needed can be learned on the job, indeed, are probably best learned there” (Religion [2011] 41:2, 219-220). Continue reading

Is Bigger More Efficient?

In discussions about efficiency, different conceptions of the nature of education become significant. If education is about transferring pieces of knowledge from a learned person to a student, then the difference between a 400 student lecture course, a 30 person classrooms, a 15 student seminar, or an unlimited enrollment in an online course may be limited (although more personal interaction, in my experience, can enhance the acquisition of knowledge). However, if education is about more than becoming a walking encyclopedia, then the interaction with and feedback from a professor can be much more effective in developing skills and exploring, as briefly discussed in the previous post. The small group dynamics of a seminar, along with individual attention and advising, can be vitally important, perhaps even more efficient, for encouraging a student to explore and training him/her to approach topics in news ways and to think creatively and critically. Those skills become much more difficult to develop with large enrollments and online courses. Continue reading

The Benefits of Inefficiency

The murky imbroglio that engulfed the University of Virginia contributed to significant reflection on the relevance of academic institutions and various approaches for the future, including cuts, a corporate model of governance, and the financial benefits of online content delivery. Despite the current resolution with the reinstatement of President Sullivan, these particular issues are part of the conversation about the relevance of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Despite emphasizing examples of scientific discoveries and innovations that developed at research universities, Siva Vaidhyanathan highlights the value of the inefficiency of the university model. An undergraduate education allows time and space to explore new areas of study and new questions, and important innovations require the opportunities to explore creative solutions that fail as well as ideas that work. This point should be pushed further, though. Skills that develop within less marketable disciplines, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity (which many humanities professors excel in teaching), can be transferred into developing innovation in other fields, whether as entrepreneurs, doctors, scientific researchers, or film makers, and through voluntary contributions to civic discourse and social problem solving. These skills take time to develop and do not always demonstrate an immediate or marketable gain, but they can make a difference in society. A focus on the short-term bottom line and quick or guaranteed research success overlooks much of what innovation and an improving society requires.