“Nobody’s Gonna Go Out With Me…”

onthecouchThis blog was started in our Department back in May 2012, anticipating the 2012-13 academic year’s lecture series that had four different guests all focus on the relevance of the Humanities — a national debate here in the US for decades but one that was obviously heightened in the face of the 2008 economic collapse both here and abroad. The Department, under then Chair Ted Trost, decided to tackle this head on. And so I started posting periodically on why I think the Humanities (or, more broadly, the Liberal Arts) remain relevant.

Being a B.A. granting Department — whose place on campus is directly linked to (among other measures) credit hour production, our ability to serve the needs of the Core Curriculum, as well as the number of majors we graduate — it has long been clear that though some of our students go on to pursue further degrees in the academic study of religion (earning an M.A. or Ph.D. at other universities), the vast majority do not. For while most take only one lower-level course with us (to help satisfy the requirement that they earn at least 6 credit hours [i.e., two courses] in the Humanities), those who do become majors mostly go on to any number of other careers (teaching, law, business, medicine, government, non-governmental agencies, etc.). So, perhaps unlike some Departments of Religious Studies, where their (or their faculty’s sense of self-) importance is directly linked to producing graduate students — widely considered to be the coin of almost any academic realm — it has been profoundly apparent all along that our Department needs to take seriously the wider relevance and importance of undergraduate education in the Liberal Arts.

I assume we’re not alone in this.

Yet for two reasons, on which I’ll elaborate in a moment, I find that faculty and students elsewhere often have difficulty entertaining that what happens in an undergrad Liberal Arts degree — whether in the academic study of religion or in Poli Sci or History or English or… — is worth doing. I therefore sometimes find that they have trouble taking themselves and their interests seriously or seeing themselves as having gained something in that degree that makes them desirable.

I think there’s a broad reason for this that applies all throughout the Liberal Arts, and also a specific reason that is local to my own field, Religious Studies. I’m hardly the first to point this out, of course, but that doesn’t make it not worth identifying again, given how unrelenting these two influences are — at least in my experience — and thus how each new crop of students is bombarded by these two pressures and can thus end up judging themselves as inadequate when, in fact, I see them as being far from it.

First, there’s the professionalization of the university.

Older people sure know — but I sometimes wonder if younger students understand — that much of what we today take for granted as being taught at a university was once taught at professional schools. Although I’m from Canada, the situation here isn’t all that different; I think of my two older sisters, both graduating high school in mid-to late-1960s. One wanted to be a nurse and so went to “nursing college,” and the other wanted to be a teacher and so went to “teacher’s college.” Neither were programs associated with a university. (That these two were among the small number of professional careers open to women at that time is a point I also fear is lost on students today — students who therefore fail to realize how much has changed in just forty years….)

With the entry of professions into the university, and the new emphasis on credentials only earned at the university, there was a new expectation of a direct link between a university degree and training in the specifics required for a career in a given profession. For a degree in nursing makes you a nurse and a degree in accounting makes you an accountant — why would you ever study either and not go on to that field? Rolling once separate nursing and business schools, to name just two fields, into the university, or inventing the Bachelor of Education degree as the exclusive credentialing marker for teachers, certainly helped the university in many ways, by extending its influence to training a large number of professions needed to make a diverse society function. Of course there’s still trade schools (i.e., one doesn’t go to university to earn a degree to become a welder or a mechanic — not yet, at least), but the university of today would likely be difficult to recognize for someone from just a few generations ago (let alone the 19th century or the middle ages!), when it was likely that only those wanting to go into nursing administration would consider getting a university degree in nursing.

But along with the increased social influence, and thus reach, of the university (inasmuch as it was now the unquestioned home of all sorts of profession’s credentialing processes) came a set of pragmatic expectations for all degrees. Thus, today, we find fields of study that have long been housed in a university but which are now judged (correction, “assessed” is the now accepted nomenclature) based on criteria that only came to campus with the professions, over the past several decades. That is, if you’re not going to go on to grad school in philosophy and then become a philosopher then why be a philosophy major? Coz there’s nothing else to do with that degree, right? To rephrase it, it isn’t difficult to find people who think that an undergrad degree is a waste of money if one elects to go into some other field upon graduation or if one fails to get a job in one’s chosen area.

“What are you going to do with a degree in American Studies?” asks the legitimately concerned parent.

Thus we arrive at a point where the content of the degree, the subject matter, has become the primary focus. Mechanical engineering degrees credential people to become mechanical engineers. And in a world such as that, why earn a History degree if you don’t end up being a historian?

So the first problem in the Liberal Arts is that we have internalized this logic and, in many cases, judge our relevance by means of our subject matter and students’ continued relationship to that subject matter once they leave our classes. While I don’t wish to harken back to some Renaissance notion of the Humanities as teaching “the art of living well,” as if it is a good for its own sake, I have a problem with judging the relevance of the B.A. that my Department grants in this way. For some of our students the specific content will retain a direct relevance, of course — their interest in, say, Tibet Buddhism will be sparked in an undergrad class and off they go studying that particular item, perhaps for a lifetime. But for most in the Liberal Arts, this will likely not be their experience — but that’s no reason not to earn the degree or not to take our classes.

Second, there’s the self-evidently holy nature of what we in our field supposedly study.

As I’ve long argued, many scholars of religion presume their object of study to be obviously interesting, i.e., they’re trained to recognize the sacred in all its many forms and not to study how mundane social operations create sacredness as an apparent, but all too changeable, value. Therefore, in my experience, many scholars of religion have difficulty discussing the wider relevance of their work since…, well, it’s religion! It’s obviously important — at least to anyone who shares their values and their interests, that is.

There’s an anecdote I have that, I think, illustrates this nicely — one that I’ve surely related in print before, but who knows where or when. It concerns an early career person I was once speaking with about a tenure-track position in Asia that our Department hoped to get. “Well, of course you should get it,” the person responded, as I recall, adding something like, “because look how important understanding Asia is today!” My reply suggested that the importance of the object of study likely wouldn’t be all that relevant in deciding which Department got which positions, for surely the English professors all thought that studying this text or that era was essential and probably the Chemistry professors all thought that studying this compound or that reaction was crucial, etc., etc. That is, we all probably think that what we each do is important — otherwise, why do it? — but an administrator overseeing it all would probably make the decision based on criteria well outside those discipline-specific reasons, criteria like growth in the major, student:professor ratios, credit hour production, which Department didn’t get a search last year and needs one now, etc.

My point is that not just the external pressures that came with the professionalization of the university have forced all fields to focus on the supposedly direct relationship between content and career (so not just the increased cost of tuition, decreased government funding of education, and the increased competitiveness of many job markets has prompted us to focus on the importance, i.e., marketability, of that content). For I think all sorts of students inside our field are trained like that person I spoke with, just above, about getting a position in Asia: we generally do not see our object of study as illustrative of some other, more widely apparent thing, some process or system that can be exemplified in a variety of places or times, only one of which might be what we happen to study. Thus we have trouble speaking to people outside our narrow specialty — who, after all, goes to sessions at our annual conference devoted to a data area that we ourselves don’t work it? — since we’re so focused on the content and not the questions and curiosities that made this particular content stand out as a good place to study something — something others, working in yet other areas, might equally find interesting.

This specialization, I think, is related to the more general professonalization mentioned above — it is a specialization no different than many fields, of course, but in the study of religion we have the added benefit (or curse?) of widespread folk assumptions about our subject matter transcending time and space, which makes it tough for some to instead see it as mundane, hardly unique, but, depending on their own questions, no less interesting.

And it’s this shift to recognizing that one’s questions and assumptions make something interesting that holds the key to the relevance of what we do in the Liberal Arts.

While not all units in the Liberal Arts make this move, of course, it is this move to focusing on the situation of the observer that, I think, is the key to why one ought to take seriously what’s going on in the Humanities. For this is a move that starts not with the facts on the ground, the content, but with the conditions necessary for us to come to see this as more interesting to study than that; it is a move that shifts our gaze to our own curiosities, assumptions and, by extension, the tools people use to put those into practice and to answer the questions they’re posing, for ends of their own making..

So this is the reason why I think that, at least in a Liberal Arts undergraduate degree, coming to see whatever content we happen to study as the contingent site where we help students to practice using sets of widely applicable skills — e.g., definition, description, comparison, interpretation, explanation, persuasion, etc. — is crucial for communicating to wider constituencies the relevance of what we do. It means resisting, as best we can, the logic of professionalization and the measures that come with it while also resisting the pressures of specialization; should one go on to earn an M.A. in a Liberal Arts field and then a Ph.D., then both of those will come soon enough, but in the B.A. we are teaching broad skills applicable to almost any future a student will work toward.

This makes them not simply “transferable skills,” as we once might have described them (as if they happen also to have relevance outside our domain) but, instead, the building blocks of all disciplined study. And so it’s for that reason that my 100-level Core Curriculum course, though focusing on the definition of religion, is actually concerned with far broader applications of this one skill — delimiting a domain as set apart and thus significant; for, in the years to come, all of the students who enroll in it will be involved in this activity in countless ways, whether in their careers of family lives, whether deciding an issue on a local school board or figuring out at which point their child is no longer a child but an adult and thus deserving of different treatment. While I have no idea what they will someday recall of my course, I presume it will not be the content (after all, what content from my own undergrad organic chemistry course do I recall today?) but, instead, an attitude toward how we signify the worlds in which we live (much as I daily draw on an analytic attitude that I trace back to that undergrad degree in the sciences that I once did).

This also means that the agency of the student has to enter into our conversation; for instead of passively working through a predetermined curriculum, as happens in many of the professional fields, our students know (or ought to know) from the start that their choices have consequence and that they are actively constituting possible futures by means of these choices. Responsible professors in the Humanities therefore are the ones who challenge their students to be mindful of their position and their choices, knowing that they are continually inventing themselves along with continually inventing the object they are studying by means of the questions they pose and the tools they employ — questions and tools that, for a moment, allow them to focus on a small part of a very large world.

So I think that we teach skills that are crucial to all topics you may eventually study or work on; we empower students to be mindful of context and setting; we challenge them to recognize themselves as active agents who are operating in complex systems comprised of multiple agents with multiples of agendas. We provide them with the specifics of content but always as an “e.g.”, as but one site where they can use their tools and always with the invitation to find new places where these tools are equally helpful for making sense of some situation that fascinates them.

In a word, I think we teach them to be entrepreneurs.

So I think that our students — if they can resist not only the temptation to posit a direct link between content and career but also the temptation to assume what they study is self-evidently interesting — have all sorts of skills that can be applied in all sorts of places, making them highly desirable. (And it’s not just me, for this is what our own grads report.) The challenge is for them to step up, take ownership of the agency we hopefully inspire in them while being mindful of the practical constraints of the world in which they happen to be situated, and do something with the moves they learned in our classes.

The B.A. in the Humanities, then, provides training that is essential to virtually any future — whether you find us for just one course or complete an entire degree with us. The key is figuring out where each student wants to use those skills.