Oh, the humanities

Life, liberal arts, and the pursuit of humanities

Matthew Molinaro, Opinion Editor

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that every single employer in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a humanities graduate. The humanities graduate was spiteful. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. How do I turn from my degree and live? For students of the humanities, all this happened, more or less.

Any student of the humanities understands the power of stories: How they unite us, how they diffuse past borders, how they free us. For example, the story that I jokingly tell myself and others about my English literature major is that it acts as a way of combating thoughts that I am an interventionist. Unfortunately, not everyone believes that understanding stories is still necessary––or relevant. 

The humanities have a long, if not fraught, history. Part of it might be its softness or subjectivity. Unlike science’s hard empiricism, humanities take on critical, historical, and oft-conflicting lenses in their quest for truth. In ancient Greece, there was the concept of paideia, a broad-ranging system of education meant to guide men to becoming good, active citizens. Later on in western Europe during the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church took a decisive role in creating strong programs of liberal education. By the late 12th century, the university was born in Bologna and Paris, where instructors typically emphasized teaching theology––quite literally the interpretation of texts. More recently, some universities have touted Great Books programs and Western Civilization courses with the aim of making students read “our” civilization’s venerated works––though these reading lists skew European and Anglophone and propagate Eurocentrism. Perhaps the greatest modern manifestation of the humanities is the liberal arts college. Though they are more of an American phenomenon, north of the border, small, boutique universities like University of King’s College, Bishop’s University, Mount Allison University, and Acadia University stress a liberal arts curriculum. Carleton University’s Great Books program, Western University’s School for Advanced Studies in the Arts and Humanities (SASAH), and McGill’s own Liberal Arts major show that even large research universities can incorporate humanistic content. 

What is essential about the humanities is that these fields take a normative approach to answering abstract questions about the good and how we should live, whereas the sciences focus foremost on gathering empirical information. These approaches do not need to be mutually exclusive, however. The rise of the medical humanities and environmental humanities––fields which assess human impacts in medicine and climate change––shows that humanistic approaches to the sciences can have positive concrete effects on practice and knowledge creation. In social sciences, there has been a turn to the affective, where scholars focus on emotions in politics and society, and the rise of qualitative methods like narrative counter-storytelling used to magnify the experiences of marginalized communities. These approaches to humanistic inquiry challenge the “hard,” positivist science turn that has taken over some social sciences.

The interaction between the two different communities of sciences and humanities fascinates Victor Wang, a U2 Arts student studying computer science and English literature.

“I get to find really lovely connections and intersections between these two disciplines, the disciplines of computer science, or the skill of programming, along with the skills of reading and writing within English literature,” Wang said. “It may be different to finish, like the coding project versus finishing an essay. One really nice thing to know, as well, is how similar these students’ work and struggles are as well.”

My journey to studying English literature is decidedly not unique––I love to read and write, I love how politics and art intersect, I want to change the world. But I’ll confess that these clear-cut signs alone still did not stop me from starting my degree in management. As a convert to the humanities, I’m especially grateful to finally study my passions. It was not an easy choice. I still grapple with what literature does, what humanities offers, and what theory means, beyond the academy. We live in a profoundly unequal world. The ability to face the pressure to get a job after choosing a pathway of study typically known for its unemployability reflects my own class privilege. Having had the privilege to study the humanities, I want to be able to do something substantial with them. Studying the humanities only to be a passive agent in the face of injustice is a fundamental contradiction that needs to be addressed, unpacked, and dismantled at all times.

Resisting the cultural pressures to study something more “useful” is something that Thai Judiesch, a U3 Arts student in the English cultural studies stream and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies (GSFS), takes seriously. To Judiesch, the humanities open up discourse on our social context and lived experiences.

“Humanities articulate something differently which tries to get at the unanswerable questions of the world,” Judiesch said. “And I think that there was something in that level of mystery that felt more intriguing to me [....] I stand pretty firm. I don't get really wavered.”

After starting at the individual level—through, usually, closeness with a text—humanities students and scholars have to go out into the world. In the wider community, humanities offer opportunities for collaboration and can encompass making, creating, and doing interdisciplinary work. Michelle Hartman, a professor of Arabic literature at the Institute for Islamic Studies and an acclaimed literary translator, emphasized the rewarding outcomes of interdisciplinary scholarship. Hartman, who has collaborated with education scholar rosalind hampton and Black disability studies pioneer Therí Pickens, brought together methods from Black Studies and critical Arab American studies in her most recent book, Breaking Broken English: Black-Arab Literary Solidarities and the Politics of Language.

“We have these things in common, [along] with these things not in common,” Hartman said in reference to her collaborators, Hampton and Pickens. “If you're [engaging in interdisciplinary work], genuinely I think it will force you to ask difficult questions that will force you to be spinning around things that are outside your comfort zone. That's what interdisciplinary work means: Working outside of your comfort zone and really challenging yourself to think in different ways.”

As the story sits, any conception of the humanities, traditional, interdisciplinary, or even multicultural, is under attack from all angles––whether from capitalism, globalization, changing syllabi, or the university system itself. The academic job market has become a nightmare (or perhaps it has always been), funding is limited and limiting (but you have to expect that of funding, you’ll spend more time writing grants than writing your work), employers don’t care about what grade you received on an undergraduate thesis they neither sought nor read (nobody reads anymore, let alone critical work). If the humanities need defending, would it need a strategy compatible with capitalism?

At the same time, there are new approaches to texts in the digital humanities (DH) that make use of computational tools for research. Wang, who bridges his studies together with DH, finds that the superpowers of both fields allow DH to enrich the humanities just as humanities enrich the sciences. For example, he emphasized a recent study by Richard So that found that white authors wrote over 90 per cent of books published by major publishing firms yearly from 1950 to 2018.

“DH can help tell stories, it can give voices to those who might not have that voice in the traditional humanities or the other way around and give voices to those who might not have the same [powerful] voices,” Wang said. “What can we do with that? Like, how can we hone that? Those who knew how to program and have these great ideas, but didn't necessarily have an outlet for both? Now they can take that, they can inspire their friends, and more importantly, they can tell stories and look at stories about race and about literature.”

In an age where the traditional humanities still feel threatened, however, the reception to these approaches isn’t always positive. 

“With the surge of digital humanities, there was a lot of backlash,” Judiesch said. “Old school humanities scholars do not like the idea of bringing in quantitative analysis into the humanities. It's complicated in a lot of ways, because there is this sense that you have to be flexible and be able to move with the times.”

Of course, scholars should not be coerced into making their work quantitative simply because DH offers an additional perspective or set of tools. 

For younger people interested in humanities, the popularity of alt academia shows that there are more ways the humanities can enrich themselves beyond the old guard. For instance, YouTube longform essay content, like videos by ex-philosopher Natalie Wynn, is incredibly popular.

“[Traditional] people are stubborn,  and to be fair, I get it is kind of scary, like, ‘What will it mean?’” Judiesch noted. “The humanities just turned into this science discipline that let go of these ideas of multiple truths. And I guess that's some dystopian reality that I feel like a lot of people are imagining, which I don't think is [necessarily] true.”

An attitude that does have to be modernized, though, is the idea that humanities scholarship should solely focus on those interested in graduate work. Hartman noted that nowadays, many of her students go on to cross-disciplinary careers across the world. To her, that shows that the humanities opens up social conversations even for those who do not solely focus on pursuing the humanities.

But to have conversations openly is political––which is perhaps another reason why the humanities are under attack. Free speech is a contentious issue, especially at a time when conservative states in the U.S. are banning ways of thought and interpretation, like critical race theory. The so-called liberal university and Canada itself is not immune from eradicating thought that supports misconstrued, dangerous ideologies. 

“I'm concerned about a debate, where the premier says there's no systemic racism in Quebec, it's factually untrue. And it closes a conversation that right now is an important conversation young people are having,” Hartman said. “So if you can pronounce, and get all of your ministers and society to pronounce, over and over and over again something as a truth and say that it is not allowed to be discussed, that directly speaks against the experience of the majority of people who are affected by it.”

In truth, the university is not neutral ground because learning itself will always be political. And updating a reading list to include a few more authors of colour is not the be-all, end-all of updating the curriculum. To do the humanities differently is not to read Toni Morrison or Edward Said just to realize that Black and Palestinian people are different. Reading racialized authors as dark drops in a sea of whiteness does not centre their art as beautiful, as dynamic, as powerful. Reading books themselves is not enough when reading Black and Palestinian authors does not reorient your worldview or your engagement in the world. While some scholars promote new models of diversifying the humanities, like the University of Chicago English department’s decision to accept only PhD students working in Black studies, these models often lack bold structural changes that scrutinize systemic failures in academia. 

McGill is certainly no exception. Judiesch pointed out how certain course offerings are continually underfunded and disparaged, both inside and outside of the university. 

“This year there were so many [courses] that were put on the curriculum for gender studies [that] ended up getting taken away at the last minute because they just didn't have enough funding for them,” Judiesch said. “It's this weird thing where I feel like gender studies is often seen as a tag on to the humanities. For example, in literature, you'll see people doing a postcolonial class like it's attached as this kind of amendment to the humanities.”

No wonder when McGill likes to associate itself with the veneer of cultural capital and academic prestige. The iconic Arts building featured on almost all McGill communications reminds us of the university’s ties to the humanities. Even the first endowed research chair at McGill, the Molson Chair, is reserved for a professor studying English, showing a vested interest in the relationship between humanities and the university. This relationship, though, is unequal. The humanities no longer remain a plural discipline when the classical, white, Western subjects of the humanities erase the bold work certain newer disciplines provide. Meanwhile, other universities across Canada like Queen’s have picked up the pace on Black studies, with cultural geographer and Black feminist thinker Katherine McKittrick rightfully gaining recognition from a major source of funding, the Canada Research Chairs Program. McGill remains far behind on working on the potentially transformative changes of the Anti-Black Racism Plan.

Hartman questioned the reasoning that decides which authors, theories, and lives are political. She recalled a particularly egregious New York Times review of her translation of Jana Elhassan’s psychological novel The Ninety-Ninth Floor, where the reviewer explicitly argued that readers should read Elhassan’s carefully crafted work because of its political content rather than the storytelling.“It’s the political rather than the personal that’s most engaging for the foreign reader,” wrote reviewer Alison McCulloch, “since there are some truths only a storyteller can tell.”

“[The argument is] that certain kinds of literature in the context that we're in, let's say, in North American academia, Anglo academia, Canadian academia, etc., is itself a political statement,” Hartman said. “Because the assumption is that the works that we're working on are themselves not neutral. These other things are neutral. These other things are literature. And what you're doing is: ‘Oh, it's literary, but it's somehow political.’”

Even McGill’s disciplinary categorization is political. Why are classes in East Asian studies, for instance, not considered part of Languages, Literatures, and Culture or Classics? Overcoming the arbitrariness of disciplines requires interdisciplinary work. Hartman noted that at the Institute for Islamic Studies alone, historians, literary critics, political scientists, and scholars of religious studies all come together for challenging and collaborative conversations under a broad tent. Where scholars work multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity into structures, unidisciplinary fields can be undone.

“In the humanities, everyone's talking about ‘undisciplining.’ And I think that disciplines overall are very fundamentally a colonial construct, the idea that you can in any way separate out forms of knowledge,” Judiesch said. “There's been more uptake in Indigenous scholars and Black studies scholars that are articulating that integration of different disciplines is essential to working, and decolonizing academia.”

Illustrations by Jinny Moon, Design Editor