Save the humanities, win interesting prizes!

There’s an interesting article over on Vitae (which is quickly becoming my favorite site for angry blogposts from disaffected academics – hey, everyone’s gotta have a hobby!) arguing that the humanities aren’t really in danger, but that we as humanities researchers need to repackage how we talk about our studies.  The author suggests (as I’ve heard other people do) that we need to take a page from the STEM playbook, giving the particular example of Neil deGrasse Tyson.

I’ve been part of similar arguments in the UK when Brian Cox was first achieving fame as a rockstar/physicist, and I’m struck with the same problem with the argument – I don’t see how we can do that.

Firstly, I think it’s worth noting for a moment that many famous scientists are either physicists (particular astrophysicists) or biologists, which I think says more about the public interest value of those subjects than anything else.  These are subjects that have had public appeal for more than a century – just look at the number of observatories, planetariums, and natural history museums in the world.  We like looking at the stars and hearing about bugs and botany.  That’s awesome, but not necessarily transferable to other subjects (for example, name your favorite TV mathematician!)

However, I think it’s actually harder for people in the humanities to talk about their work in a way that the public will embrace because honestly, a lot of our work is about how much people suck.  As a historian and theologician, I spend a lot of time at public gatherings talking about Medieval siege tactics and the history of Greek fire because it’s a way to avoid having people ask me ‘so why is Islam such a violent religion?,’ a question that I can’t answer without accusing the asker of bigotry and bias.

Questions of gender, race, sexuality identity, ableism, class privilege, and imperialism permeate almost every field of the humanities and social sciences, but these still aren’t topics that most people want to think about.  They also permeate the sciences, as proven by the still abysmal recruitment rates of non-white-male scientists and the scary accounts of sexual harassment in the workplace, but they permeate the actual experience of being a scientist, not the language with which scientists describe the universe.

Case in point: when Stephen Hawking was asked about his life and career at seventy, he said that what he thinks about most is women because “they are a complete mystery to me.”  It was obviously meant in a light-hearted way, but it’s still a rather creepy observation from a seventy-year-old man AND a slightly sad statement from a person reputed to be one of the most brilliant people in the world.

[Pro-tip to Professor Hawking (who clearly reads my blog): the mystery is that we’re people.  Like, people-people.  We’re all different.  So it’s really hard to generalize about us unless the generalization is ‘they’re people.’]

If a historian or a sociologist or a literarian wanted to put together a big, glossy TV show like Cosmos, it would be very difficult to do so in a way that is both honest to the source material and which does not touch upon uncomfortable topics like slavery, genocide, sexual violence, or poverty, because that’s a lot of what we do.  Indeed, these shows do exist, but tend to focus on Classical history (Michael Wood being one of the great kings of them, and more recently, my department’s former chair, Diarmaid MacCulloch), in part because it’s easier to wash over these uncomfortable topics as something people *used* to do (a repellant tendency of very bad scholarship that unfortunately seems to be seeping into our discussions of American Revolutionary and Civil War history, as well, events that desperately need to be discussed with an eye for the present-day consequences of their actions).

The thing is, talking about these things *IS* necessary, which is why I get anxious when funding and enrollment in the humanities starts to slip.  These problems aren’t going to go away by ignoring them, and having a community of researchers that have methodologies and language in place to study and understand them should help.  But it’s never going to be as entertaining as watching lions hunt or seeing distant stars up close (and pragmatically, it’s never going to be as good for selling commercial slots or getting promotional tie-ins).

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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2 Responses to Save the humanities, win interesting prizes!

  1. My favorite TV mathematician is Marcus du Sautoy!!

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