Knowing the demographic and interests of the student body you teach matters. I’ve taught for several years at a large state university and it’s become a pet project of mine to keep a loose tally the majors of my students. Less than 1% major in the humanities. Admittedly, my classes overall reflet a small sample size, but university graduates with degrees in the humanities have only been between 10-15% in the past 30 years [also note the neagtive trends in the Humanities, and Religious Studies in particular, in the cart below]. Most of my taught classes have been university-required academic writing classes, so I would guess it’s a pretty fair representation (i.e. random sampling) of the student body as a whole. Yet, most of the students are freshman or sophomores, and to be frank, I’ve found that most of them don’t know what the humanities are, let alone have the motivation to major in a humanities discipline.
These suspicious were only confirmed this past summer. I was a last minute teaching assistant for a course that introduced the “research university” to incoming freshman. It was an online course to service the students who could not attend, for financial reasons or otherwise, the highly successful “head start” program, where incoming freshman took summer courses before their formal fall start.
Our course introduced the structure and disciplinary divisions of a research university, which is significantly different from their educational experience in high school. The middle three weeks of the five week course were devoted to explorations of the humanities, social sciences, and math & natural sciences respectively. Students watched recorded interviews of faculty members from each department, interviews of undergraduate majors, and watched or read other media describing the exciting intellectual opportunities of different disciplines.
There was a clear, noticeable trend among the weekly reflections of our students. Many commented that they simply did not know what the humanities studied or why it was valuable to their careers. Others said they enjoyed or excelled at humanities classes in high school, but opted for the safer STEM major (or were heavily persuaded by their parents) when going to college. Clearly, many of these sentiments are motivated by – understandable in some regards – employment-minded concerns.
They also noted that these feelings were common among their friends, claiming that humanities majors were “looked down upon” and taken up by students who were “lazy” and “looking for an easy A.” More interestingly, several incoming students did not know that scholars in the humanities did research, thinking that research was only conducted by scientists (!!). From their perspective, taking classes in the humanities meant rote memorization of “dead” facts, and science was the domain were creativity (and fun experimentation) was encouraged.
Lastly, of the handful of sophomores or upperclassmen who took the course (it was open to everyone), many spoke of a particular humanities class or particular teacher they had taken that revealed the intellectual excitement of that discipline.
So what is my biggest takeaway? First, almost all of the preconceptions above were mitigated once students got a better understanding of what the humanities constitutes (object or scope of study and methods of investigation), of the “living” and sometimes contested nature of humanities scholarship, and of how genuinely excited scholars were of their research, and of the opportunity for students to deeply engage their own research interests (some self-determinism is a powerful motivating tool). Moreover, before the summer course, sophomores and upperclassman only changed their perceptions when they encountered a particularly charismatic teacher.
Grist for the Mill: Thus, it is apparent to me as a teacher of religion (at least where I am currently), that I have to explain what I do as a scholar of the humanities, why I do it, and offer the opportunity for students to experience something similar. It has also been my experience that my excitement for research and resolving my research questions is contagious, which is only amplified when the students have a degree of determining their own research agendas. Admittedly, these are not novel insights. They are approaches derived from a constructivist theory of learning which broadly include methods of student-centered learning and cognitive apprenticeship. Nevertheless, it goes beyond simply having one lecture on the importance of the humanities – it goes into the conceptual structure, classroom activities, and means of student assessment for the entire course.
*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.