What's with the 'tude? December 10, 2009 4:48 AM   Subscribe

There's always some drive-by snideness any time someone posts an AskMe post that mentions education in any of the humanities. This question from last night is an entirely valid question and is in good faith. Some of the answers, not so much.

For example:

The phenomenon you're describing is basically proof that nerds are better people., Second, humanities degrees are frequently cover far easier material and Otoh, a humanities professor is simply being cruel by encouraging mediocre students to persist in a discipline where even the best of the best struggle to find positions.

I'm not calling these commenters out individually. I know that none of the statements I quoted are ad hominem attacks, and that they're pretty mild as far as Metafilter rudeness goes. I just want to dispel what seem to be rampant assumptions about people who study and work in the humanities:
1. There are plenty of active MeFites who prove that people who choose to pursue higher education and/or a career in the humanities are not all (a) stupider than you or (b) unemployed.
2. People who really love the humanities generally tend to be aware that it's difficult to find an academic job, even without you linking us to this article over and over.
3. People who study the humanities seriously are often every bit as nerdy as people who study "harder" subjects, I promise.

If I'm the only person this bothers, then I apologize, and you can call me unemployable all you want. Otherwise, can we discuss this attitude? To clarify, I'm not at all talking about threads like this, wherein the asker actually wants to know about job prospects.
posted by oinopaponton to Etiquette/Policy at 4:48 AM (110 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

I too was a bit put off....and reminded uncannily of this narrator here.
posted by availablelight at 4:57 AM on December 10, 2009


Bothers me too, but it goes so much wider than Metafilter I'm not sure what anyone can do about it here. It boils down to: people who don't understand the humanities don't understand the humanities, which makes it a good thing that they're not involved in the humanities.

Unfortunately, it's in the nature of an ideological commitment to the "hard" sciences to believe that they provide one with the intellectual equipment to comment usefully on any and every domain of knowledge. We who know better can only really display our superior understanding by not snarking back. It sucks.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 5:19 AM on December 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


We who know better can only really display our superior understanding by not snarking back

*cough*
posted by DU at 5:37 AM on December 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


I know a lot of sciency types in real life and I can't think of one of them who's reflexively anti-humanities but I see that attitude a lot on the internet. My take is that it's people not challenging their preconceptions and commenting unthinkingly. Also, I mentioned this in thread, but "contrary to rumors of rampant joblessness, only 39, or about 5%, of respondents in English were not in the paid workforce in December 1995 (table 5). However, only five people, less than 1% of respondents, were unemployed in the traditional economic sense of being involuntarily out of work and seeking work. Fourteen of those not working did not give an explanation for this, but it is probable that most of these women were caretakers since, in another section of the survey, they reported having small children. Twelve people, all women, were retired, many of them former high school teachers who started graduate school in midlife because they enjoyed literature." - From Rumors to Facts: Career Outcomes of English PhDs - Results from the "PhDs Ten Years Later" Study.
posted by Kattullus at 5:39 AM on December 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


ya know, i never realized that people had an urge to insult my humanities degree until once during a job interview, and the interviewer did.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 5:45 AM on December 10, 2009


I saw the question yesterday and was put off by the sneering superiority of some of the answers - not that they surprised me.

Anyway. It's disrespectful and tiresome, and I wish it would go away, or at least stay out of the green.
posted by rtha at 5:50 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


*cough*

*sigh*

*remembers never to indulge in irony on Metafilter*
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:01 AM on December 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


I wouldn't have too high hopes for anything to come of this discussion. This is more FIAMO territory. FWIW, I actually thought that thread went pretty well given the question.

As for the specific comments, yeah the first was so self-evidently absurd as a generalization that it was practically self-refuting. But it very much the exception not the rule. Though I disagreed with it, I did think it stayed on this aide of the nondeletion line mostly due to the second paragraph (which I would dispute, but it's a theory).

The second comment didn't seem so bad. I took "cruel" not to mean like pulling wings off of flies but more unthinking.
posted by chinston at 6:07 AM on December 10, 2009


I saw the question yesterday and was put off by the sneering superiority of some of the answers - not that they surprised me.

Anyway. It's disrespectful and tiresome, and I wish it would go away, or at least stay out of the green.


This, exactly.

Actual, real, genuine scientists almost never, in my experience, harsh on the humanities. On the contrary, they tend to care deeply about and often dabble themselves in literature, music, or theater, and respect the study of those things as well.

But there are a bunch of people who get a science-ish degree (say, BS in computer science) and somewhere in there they manage to pick up an incredibly strong antipathy towards the humanities. Their two required English classes were duds; their friends in the humanities spend all their time getting stoned and still get A's; sometimes they go for an Ayn Rand-style "logical" approach to the world and we all know what Galt thought of the humanities.

The point being that the second is somewhat overrepresented on MeFi, compared to the first. I think of it as being an internet phenomenon, not a science phenomenon; it's some combination of the demographics here and the freeing nature of an anonymous situation.
posted by Forktine at 6:08 AM on December 10, 2009 [22 favorites]


Believe me, I know this attitude's rampant in the world at large (my favorite part of college was my MD dad trying to convince me, after I dropped out of the pre-med track because I fell in love with history, to pursue an MBA after graduation).

I still believe in my callout, though, because I can't find any previous ones on this topic. If MeFites don't know they're offending others with their anti-humanities comments, I can't really be pissed off at them for it. And my days would be so boring without some righteous internet rage.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:12 AM on December 10, 2009


That thread has hamburger all over it.
posted by greta simone at 6:24 AM on December 10, 2009


My science father always beats my humanities mother at Trivial Pursuit, but she always kicks his ass at Scrabble. So, you know, what goes around comes around. I prefer charades.
posted by Pax at 6:28 AM on December 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Second, humanities degrees are frequently cover far easier material

While this isn't strictly true, my college experience, and I imagine many others, does little to dispel this notion. First and foremost, you have legions of people willing to outright state ignorance of math and science. When you hear over and over again, "Math is hard," or "I never really got chemistry," then your mastery of the material seems all the more exceptional.

Secondly, the grading system makes it seem like the Humanities are easier. Show up for class, turn in your assigned essays (and actually write them), and you're guaranteed a 'C'. Contrast that with the sciences, where you can actually fail. Any off-the-wall thesis is an OK essay topic, at least for some professors, so long as you back it up with rationale. Get a grade you weren't happy with? Go visit the professor during office hours, ask if you can re-tool the essay for a better grade. On the other hand, a Math test had correct answers, and the best you'll get from the prof is an offer of additional help, and encouragement to work harder next time.

This is the experience people have, and it's partially because they're only taking the intro courses in the Humanities. I'm sure it gets a lot more rigorous at the upper levels, and at the graduate level, but so long as you have Humanities students failing intro Sciences while Sciences students skate through intro Humanities with 'B-'s, this experience will continue to color opinions of the Humanities.

Me? I'm all for making the Humanities more rigorous. It's absurd that there are so many people who can call themselves "college-educated," when they're barely able to cobble a sentence together or properly express their ideas.
posted by explosion at 6:32 AM on December 10, 2009 [7 favorites]


"Liberal Arts Girl wouldn't sleep with me when I was in college."
posted by Eideteker at 6:36 AM on December 10, 2009 [17 favorites]


Eh, that certainly seems to be a common conception. At the same time, though, I saw plenty of classmates take the same approach to the intro science classes at my (very well-respected in the sciences) university: astronomy classes where the professor handed out detailed notes that included everything on the exam, geology classes that didn't do much to challenge the "rocks for jocks" stereotype, a class called Plants and Humanities (which was pretty much as difficult as it sounds).

Lazy kids are going to find a way to be lazy no matter what. It's not really the humanities' fault.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:38 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


(er, Plants and Humanity. Not Humanities. It was about indigenous drug cultures and food, not literature.)
posted by oinopaponton at 6:39 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Actual, real, genuine scientists almost never, in my experience, harsh on the humanities. On the contrary, they tend to care deeply about and often dabble themselves in literature, music, or theater, and respect the study of those things as well.

Yep. Surest sign of an ignorant scientist or engineer is one who throws out moronic generalizations about folks who study humanities.
posted by mediareport at 6:42 AM on December 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of the Big War in my High School: singers vs. orchestra. Orchestra members always sneered at singers-- "All you have to do is open your mouth." "How many hours a day do YOU practice?" "Do you know how hard it is to play notes while reading ahead?" "You don't really have to understand music theory/read sheet music do you?" There was this sense that singers had it so much easier. Meanwhile singers felt defensive and under appreciated. Lesser musicians. Outsiders, meanwhile, couldn't see any difference between the two groups and thought the whole thing was a ridiculous waste of good argument.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:43 AM on December 10, 2009


Or print v. broadcast journalism, Greasers v. Socs, etc.
posted by Pax at 6:46 AM on December 10, 2009


Jets v. Sharks. Snap snap!
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:50 AM on December 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Yeah, that was irritating. But also what explosion said. I experienced a lot of pressure (much of it coming from my peers, but also plenty from the administration) to dumb down my classes when I was a TA. I can't tell you how many students contested their grades because "x is an easy class! Everyone gets an 'A' in x!"--and how many of my English grad cohorts would say stuff like that they wouldn't grade students on spelling or grammatical errors because "harsh grading overwhelms them! (and it's so much more work!)"

I don't know that this was necessarily better at the graduate level, either. In my experience, so long as you completed the work and didn't miss more than two classes, you got an A. After all, a B- average for more than a semester would get you kicked out of graduate school. I don't know that this sort of grade inflation helps either the image of the discipline or the education of the students, but I'm also not sure what would solve this, other than a massive overhaul of the system where students aren't required to take classes that are irrelevant or largely irrelevant to their future careers and where students, even at the graduate level, aren't expected to maintain an artificially inflated GPA.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:11 AM on December 10, 2009


This reminds me of the Big War in my High School: singers vs. orchestra. Orchestra members always sneered at singers

Unfortunately the orchestra members are right and it doesn't improve after high school. Voice majors would be the worst, if it weren't for theater majors.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:33 AM on December 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


And what's the deal with viola players? That's barely even an instrument!
posted by Kattullus at 7:37 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can't speak for the US system, but it's certainly the case that in higher education in the UK, arts and humanities subjects have a similar reputation for relative softness and (as mentioned above) a habit of suddenly getting a lot more challenging after the introductory courses are over.

I teach an undergraduate creative writing class which is pitched at third-year level and have seen many students taken aback at the perceived jump in difficulty from the introductory and second-year courses. It turns out that even creative writing, unashamed home of cotton wool and self-expression bunny moonbeams, can get tough.
posted by him at 7:39 AM on December 10, 2009


Yep. Surest sign of an ignorant scientist or engineer is one who throws out moronic generalizations about folks who study humanities.

At the MeFi Tenth in NOLA, someone who is, like, some sort of NASA employee seriously seriously was, like, impressed by my humanities work. I mean. I'm pretty sure her job is harder? But it was nice!!
posted by liketitanic at 7:42 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


When I was in college the starkest difference between engineering and the humanities was the vast disparity between the number of required engineering courses versus required courses for a degree in humanities. I guess the big difference is that engineering is generally considered a "professional degree", whereas with humanities and most undergrad sciences, you're expected to complete grad level work before you can work in the field.

But still, I recall being a little annoyed that my roommate had to complete 30 credits in his major where I had 100 or so.
posted by electroboy at 7:43 AM on December 10, 2009


I avoided taking any courses in the English department at my New England liberal arts college (a Seven Sisters school) because it seemed way too hard to do well even if I'd put in a crapton of work (I mean, I took a course in the history dept and got a B+ and I was on top of my game) and I didn't want to be criticized constantly, and I didn't see any long-term return on spending $4000 (yeah, my college was ridiculously expensive...sigh...) on that. It seemed hard and annoying.

But then again, the nerds in the CS major were really snotty to me during a Game Theory course they all liked taking (as a big clique) through the econ dept (yes, I get that you were a super genius nerd outcast in your high school and you're going to be richer than me, but it's not like we have prom queens in India and I am not a (completely) frivolous person, so back off with the snottiness).

The math majors were nice. Not pretentious or anything.
posted by anniecat at 7:45 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I got two undergraduate degrees: Engineering Chemistry (like Chemical Engineering, except you have to take annoying stuff like quantum and upper year inorganic chem) and History. I did them concurrently over six years. Believe me, I've seen both sides of this. The one thing I did notice is that engineers seem to hack on humanities less than people in straight science (in my experience....I'm sure there's loads of people who could contradict me). Naturally this proves that engineers are superior to "pure" scientists. Seriously though, I think it would seem to indicate that the more serious the scientist, the more likely they will respect the humanities (as others have noted above--and yes, I'm calling engineers more serious that scientists, at least at the undergrad level--and I guess really by serious I mean seriously nerdly). Everyone needs someone else to make fun. We (engineers) usually made fun of the commerce kids. But they deserved it. Stupid commies.
posted by Go Banana at 7:48 AM on December 10, 2009


There is pressure to grade inflate, but I think that the perception that the humanities is "easier" actually comes from the fact that the grading curve is narrower.

That is, humanities tends to have fewer students failing, but also fewer students getting As (or A+, depending on the univeristy). As a grader, I was basically told to be easy on the Bs, but tough on the As -- even at a very elite university, I gave out very few full As. My husband graduated among the top few in his humanities major, and he had only a 3.83 grade point average (he had nothing below an A-, but lots of A-s and a few As).

Grading essays (the predominant form of grading in the humanities) is a very different creature than some other grading -- it's not about how much you know or how many answers right, it's about how well you apply your skills. A C isn't that you got 60% (or 70% in the US) right, it's that you basically have done have made an essay (albeit not much more than that) -- more like 50% on a multiple choice essay -- you passed, but just. But you don't get an A for being 85% (in Canada) or 93% right -- you get an A for hitting it out of the ball park, for writing an essay which is not only excellent but which impresses. An A for an essay is like getting 110% on a multiple choice exam -- not only everything right, but the bonus questions too.

(Note -- just because Canada gives A's for 85% doesn't mean Canadian grades are easier -- as any teacher knows, tests are scaled to the grades -- the Canadian tests are just harder. British tests are harder yet, as their equivalent to an A is 70%.)
posted by jb at 7:53 AM on December 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


but so long as you have Humanities students failing intro Sciences while Sciences students skate through intro Humanities with 'B-'s, this experience will continue to color opinions of the Humanities.

This kind of student "feedback" makes me even less likely to work with students who need extra help. At least I will provide no more leeway for my illiterate science and "business" students who don't, or can't, read "chapter books." To hell with the computer science and engineering majors (all male, to date) who cry in office hours for passing grades. To hell with the institutional pressures to pass underperforming students. If only I could see things as clearly as undergrads whose experience is limited to a few classes and hearsay.
posted by vincele at 7:53 AM on December 10, 2009 [7 favorites]


I was a literary studies major in college, but I this worked out well, since I liked to read and didn't consider doing so to be real course work. I was also a fuck off, so had my graduation requirements change at least twice. In my 6th year of undergraduate studies they introduced a new one credit class called something like, "What You Can Do With a Nearly Worthless Degree: and why you should start worrying about it now." I'm 26 at this point, sitting in a class of mostly 18 and 19 year olds who are being crushed be the news that their Sociology, Psychology, English, and History degrees aren't going to get them real jobs unless they stick with it through graduate school and beyond. Those poor bastards!

I knew this going in, which is why I did minors in Philosophy, Religion, and Theater! I knew a chief of police that had a degree in music.

Seriously, just because you get a degree in one of these things doesn't mean you have to do that for a living. I work with computers all day. I got the job because of my student experience working in computer labs, which I always knew would be of more monetary value than a degree in English. My sister who got an English teaching certificate became a corporate trainer for MCI. My sister still does community theater, I still write.

To me what you study isn't as important as the education. Just because you study a subject doesn't mean this is what is going to put food on the table.

This said, I still like making fun of the dorky kids in the humanities. Why? Because I was one of them.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:00 AM on December 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


PhoBWanKenobi: "[...] other than a massive overhaul of the system where students aren't required to take classes that are irrelevant or largely irrelevant to their future careers [...]"

This is the main reason that I took a somewhat weird path through the educational system. The conventional route required succeeding in a bunch of subjects that were of absolutely no interest to me at the time, and I always did very poorly in those subjects as a result.

I could understand how learning to write well would help with many jobs, but I was absolutely certain I didn't want any job where knowledge of Shakespeare's plays would be required. But even in high school, English classes were exclusively about the latter and not at all about learning to write the language.

Oddly, 20-ish years later, I am interested in a broader range of subjects than I was during school, and I think I'm probably better at learning in a general sense, too. I wonder if I'm just odd that way, or if part of the problem is that advanced education happens too soon for a lot of people?
posted by FishBike at 8:03 AM on December 10, 2009


There seemed to be a common progression among people who washed out of engineering. It generally went Engineering -> Business -> Government & Politics -> Communications. The only common thread I can see among those fields is that you regularly have the opportunity to wear a suit.
posted by electroboy at 8:05 AM on December 10, 2009


The math majors and math grad students used to juggle a lot on the lawn at my school.
posted by Pax at 8:12 AM on December 10, 2009


That is, humanities tends to have fewer students failing, but also fewer students getting As (or A+, depending on the univeristy). As a grader, I was basically told to be easy on the Bs, but tough on the As -- even at a very elite university, I gave out very few full As. My husband graduated among the top few in his humanities major, and he had only a 3.83 grade point average (he had nothing below an A-, but lots of A-s and a few As).

That wasn't my experience in the English department at the university where I taught, unfortunately. I stumbled across some website once where you could look up the average grades of each professor, and the number of professors who gave As across the board was astounding.

Seriously, just because you get a degree in one of these things doesn't mean you have to do that for a living. I work with computers all day. I got the job because of my student experience working in computer labs, which I always knew would be of more monetary value than a degree in English. My sister who got an English teaching certificate became a corporate trainer for MCI. My sister still does community theater, I still write.

Of course.

I think that there are some students who are just passionate about the subject matter of whatever it is they're studying, and for them, reading Shakespeare (to use FishBike's example) is worth it, because, damn, these plays are awesome and discussing it is so interesting and, by golly, I like the way thinking about this stuff makes my brain feel.

(I was one of these. Every time I got into a new social science or humanities class, I would get thisclose to changing my major, because, dammit, it's all so interesting!)

But I think in our society people like that are pretty rare, and most people are more interested in a degree as a route to job stability/success, and no wonder, because they've been told that having a college degree is key to getting even an office position, even if they'll never learn anything relevant to that career in college. And so their goal is to just get through the classes, get good enough grades to get a job after graduation, rather than to learn. This is also where academia intersects with corporations, because students are consumers; they're paying for their classes with an expectation of good grades and a job at the end of the tunnel. I'm really sympathetic to these attitudes, but I think that mixing them with the traditional model of an education in the humanities is pretty disastrous for the students who are actually really driven to learn for learning's sake and only results in a watering down of standards across the board.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:17 AM on December 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Isn't there a hierarchy among engineers too? Like all the non-civil engineers look down on civil engineers?
posted by anniecat at 8:18 AM on December 10, 2009


Surest sign of an ignorant scientist or engineer is one who throws out moronic generalizations about folks who study humanities.

Hey, hey it's okay, you will work for us some day.

Artsies Suck!

ERTW
posted by Chuckles at 8:21 AM on December 10, 2009


And ya, those were some really stupid answers.
posted by Chuckles at 8:22 AM on December 10, 2009


Pho - you are very right about the disconnect between universities and career training. But that's because universities are these things which are hundreds of years old -- but which have become the gateway to a white collar job only in the last generation. A BA really does have nothing to do with being an adminstrative assistant -- that's because it was deisgned to train first theologins, then lawyers, and along the way gathered up physicians and philosophers (both natural and social).

Of course, that's just what universities were in the past, when only half of a tiny fraction of the population (elite men) had the opportunity to go, and even then didn't always (in sixteenth-century England, lawyers, for example, were often trained at the Inns of Court instead of one of the universities). The question is: what should the university be now and in the future? Should they be job training? Training for what? Should job training be subsidized by the government?

And, of course, there are still serious class issues. The Ivy League, for example, offer much less job-training oriented undergraduate programs than most state universities and all community colleges. But they dominate the business world, and the media, largely through social networks and the perception that Ivy League graduates are inherently more competent than anyone else. (For Ivy League, you can insert Oxbridge for the other side of the pond).

I wish that people didn't have to go to university to move into areas which are not taught at university. University should be for teachers, lawyers, scientists and academics, etc -- these fields are all taught well there. Administration, bussiness, media, etc -- these would all be better done in training with the companies and in the job. But as long as the BA is seen as the stamp of approval, it will never change.
posted by jb at 8:29 AM on December 10, 2009 [5 favorites]


You know, I have been thinking a lot about this "problem" of humanities job prospects. Since I hear about them all the time and they contribute to a constant undercurrent of anxiety among my peers.

Here's the thing--at this point in my life, pretty much every career I have ever considered has been pooh-poohed as a poor prospect. Architecture? Spend 5 years as a CAD monkey and never get paid well. Journalist? Print's dying. Freelance writer? If you can make it there . . . Lawyer? Law schools are overenrolled. Information science? Ditto. Public policy on a nonprofit track? No money. Independent and pubilc radio production? Haaaaahahahaha. Et cetera. Many fields someone with a humanities degree someone might imagine pursuing are described as closed or difficult to succeed in.

In some sense I think it's part of a larger sociohistorical problem in the United States--that these ideas that one can do anything as long as one tries hard enough, that success is possible through, and proportional to, invested effort, that one ought to choose work that "sustains and fulfills," are proving to be kind of a myth. Or at least are less socially valued than we've imagined them to be.

So I sort of ended up thinking, "Well, fuck. Might as well do what I want now that my expectation for success has been drummed out of me." We'll see how that works out. But what else was I supposed to do, go to nursing school?
posted by liketitanic at 8:35 AM on December 10, 2009 [14 favorites]


Isn't there a hierarchy among engineers too? Like all the non-civil engineers look down on civil engineers?
posted by anniecat at 11:18 AM on December 10 [+] [!]


I'm told that at a certain highly technical school which lacks liberal arts majors, the hierarchy goes something like:

Biologists are looked down upon by the engineers, who are looked down upon by the chemists, who are, of course, looked down upon by the physicists, who, in turn, are looked down upon by the mathematicians.

I'm not exactly sure if there's a clear-cut hierarchy in engineering, but I think Civil people are regarded as a little odd because they want to spend their lives looking at boring dams and bridges and things, electrical engineers tend to be considered smart and kind of nerdy, Industrial engineers I'm not sure about, and at least when I was going into school, we all looked funny at the Computer Science people who wanted to call themselves engineers, though perhaps people are more accepting these days.
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:46 AM on December 10, 2009


Mike Rowe wants you to follow your passion.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:46 AM on December 10, 2009


PhoBWanKenobi: "I think that there are some students who are just passionate about the subject matter of whatever it is they're studying, and for them, reading Shakespeare (to use FishBike's example) is worth it, because, damn, these plays are awesome and discussing it is so interesting and, by golly, I like the way thinking about this stuff makes my brain feel.

(I was one of these. Every time I got into a new social science or humanities class, I would get thisclose to changing my major, because, dammit, it's all so interesting!)
"

That's how I still feel about the subjects that interest me, so I totally get that. Hopefully my previous comment didn't seem dismissive of the humanities, because if so, I didn't mean it that way. It's just that there are certain subjects that don't (or didn't) interest me, and as a result I was totally unmotivated to put any effort into them. They are fine subjects for anyone who is interested in them.

"But I think in our society people like that are pretty rare, and most people are more interested in a degree as a route to job stability/success, and no wonder, because they've been told that having a college degree is key to getting even an office position, even if they'll never learn anything relevant to that career in college. And so their goal is to just get through the classes, get good enough grades to get a job after graduation, rather than to learn."

I agree this happens, and I think it's a shame, because I do see a lot of people who have obtained qualifications in subjects that don't actually interest them, just because "that's where the jobs are". And in general, it seems like these people don't do all that well in those jobs.

A middle ground, where the goal is to still to get a job, but in a field that you find interesting, seems like the best way. Of course it would seem that way to me, because that's what I did.

"This is also where academia intersects with corporations, because students are consumers; they're paying for their classes with an expectation of good grades and a job at the end of the tunnel. I'm really sympathetic to these attitudes, but I think that mixing them with the traditional model of an education in the humanities is pretty disastrous for the students who are actually really driven to learn for learning's sake and only results in a watering down of standards across the board"

I got to the point where I realized that even with a watering down of the standards, there was no way I'd ever graduate from any program that included the subjects I didn't like. That included high school, which I gradually dropped out of, but then went to a commercial college a year or so later and went through an accredited program to learn computer programming.

I did really well in that compared to many other students, because it was a subject that really interested me. I knew about 50% of the material already going in, but enjoyed learning the other 50% rather than just trying to get through it and pass the exam.

But it was very light on anything not related to programming. I think we spent a week on "business communications" and another week on "project management", and everything else was about computer programming. I got through those pretty well mainly because they were only 1 week each (as were all other segments of the course, with a 3-hour exam every Friday), and I can put up with almost anything for a week.

The course was even pretty light on computer science concepts, in the same way that, say, a machine shop course would be pretty light on materials science and mostly about how to make the machines do what you want. I would have preferred to go to a regular university to learn more of the computer science stuff too, but I knew they would make me learn a bunch of other stuff as well that I couldn't possibly get through.
posted by FishBike at 8:50 AM on December 10, 2009


Huh, my college days in CS were spent mostly ragging on MIS majors. From what I hear that hasn't changed.

Linguistics was my minor, so I had to take upper level humanities courses as well as what were then called Home Economics classes. They were "easier" than say, the Electrical Engineering requirements, but they weren't cakewalks.

I can't say I've seen this 'rag on the humanities' a lot, but I don't hang out on the Green as much as I used to. Mostly because there are too many people wanting to prove their superiority/insight/whatever by questioning the premise or the humanity of the asker.
posted by lysdexic at 9:04 AM on December 10, 2009


But you don't get an A for being 85% (in Canada) or 93% right -- you get an A for hitting it out of the ball park, for writing an essay which is not only excellent but which impresses. An A for an essay is like getting 110% on a multiple choice exam -- not only everything right, but the bonus questions too.

Seconding this (philosophy at a Canadian uni). I was rebuked (and was forced to re-mark) for handing out too many A’s and had great difficulty dealing with students who would schedule interviews with me to discuss their paper. But it’s well-argued and logical! they would say. I agree. That earns you a "B". An "A" must be outstanding – a work of exceptional creativity as well. Those were my professor’s words, not mine (though I had to repeat them). I also thought a well-argued, logical philosophy paper was an "A" paper. The department, on the other hand, did not.

Of course, I also scored thirteen percent on my first symbolic logic exam, because sometimes, even in philosophy, there are right and wrong answers. (I studied and re-took it, getting 100% – I’d learned my lesson – which was to approach the material with more respect)
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:08 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have a hard time taking the disses on the humanities seriously at all. To me, it's one of those things that's so obviously not true that I have to laugh when I hear something dismissive about it.

I've been going to college, off and on, for 11 years now. I'm finishing up my 7th degree (5 A.A.s, 1 B.A., 1 M.A. almost done!), 4 of them in the humanities. I'm just about to sign up for 5-10 more years of school, to earn a PhD program in the humanities (yes, that's how long it takes). My experience is limited to a small geographic area (SF Bay Area), but it spans a good chunk of time, and 3 school systems across 5 different schools. You can imagine the fun in ordering transcripts. Anyways...

I've felt the struggle, this semester particularly. Just finished writing 4 research essays and an IRB proposal. I've also been applying to grad schools, which really forces you to reflect on the things you've learned, what's salient and relevant, and how to present it all. I've seen people around my drop like flies (and I've dropped here and there too). For example, people think that taking History of English will be a piece of cake, like storytime. HAHAHAHAHA. Meet Verner and Grimm and their pesky little laws of sound change and feel the widespread panic.

I guess I think of it like a little secret. People assume that humanities is one thing – one easy thing – and I'm usually too overworked and busy to dispel their whack notion. Until something comes up in casual conversation (something always comes up...this is the stuff humans talk about) and my classmate or I say, "oh, I just looked into that, and here's what I think is going on there..." and give them some new information that in an accessible way, but contains some challenging terms or concepts that they weren't previously familiar with. It's fun to add something useful to the discussion, but even more rewarding when you realize that you've just also forced a recalibration of somebody's perception about an entire category of knowledge.

I guess there's just no doubt in my mind that I = human + nerd = humanities student. Plus the look of wild-eyed crazy I flash when somebody dismisses it is probably somewhat alarming. They back away slowly and I get to return to my light 'n fluffy reading.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:17 AM on December 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is the experience people have, and it's partially because they're only taking the intro courses in the Humanities.

I don't know if this is typical, but for my engineering degree, we had to take "two courses of upper level Hum/Soc electives" (in addition to two lower level ones). You would NEVER see the opposite. Same university, liberal arts degrees required one math course and two science courses, no level specified.

I'm not exactly sure if there's a clear-cut hierarchy in engineering,

IIRC, ChemE was considered hardest (due to Organic Chem I/II), than EE or Comp Eng (due to Electromagnetic Fields), then MechE, then Civil, then Industrial. Comp Eng was considered harder than Comp Sci, because we had to take their upper-level courses, and they didn't have to take ours.
posted by smackfu at 9:19 AM on December 10, 2009


Biologists are looked down upon by the engineers, who are looked down upon by the chemists, who are, of course, looked down upon by the physicists, who, in turn, are looked down upon by the mathematicians.

The version I've usually heard runs more like:
Neuro/pysch people are looked down on by biologists who are looked down on by chemists who are looked down upon by physicists who are looked down upon by mathematicians.

Engineering had a parallel set of hierarchies, resembling those of the natural sciences (i.e., a biological engineer might be looked down on by a chemical engineer, but both of them might consider civil engineers to be wimps.)
posted by ubersturm at 9:27 AM on December 10, 2009


"All science is either physics or stamp collecting."
1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson
posted by Kiwi at 9:50 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't know if this is typical, but for my engineering degree, we had to take "two courses of upper level Hum/Soc electives" (in addition to two lower level ones). You would NEVER see the opposite. Same university, liberal arts degrees required one math course and two science courses, no level specified.

Similar at my university. I majored/minored in finance/political science, and it kind of boggles the mind that people can receive a degree in the humanities or social sciences without taking even a basic "statistics for research" type of class, although I'm sure that changes at the graduate level.

I think that dichotomy is what colors many people's view of humanities degrees.
posted by lalex at 9:54 AM on December 10, 2009


lalex, many social science degrees (political science, sociology) do indeed require statistics classes.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:59 AM on December 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


Why would a humanities student require a statistics course? Isn't that like saying it boggles the mind that people can graduate with a degree in higher education without learning close reading or critical theory basics. That said, some interesting humanities work hase been done with statistics and I bet there have been a lot of scientists who've benefited professionally from learning the basic tools of humanities study.
posted by Kattullus at 10:09 AM on December 10, 2009


> but both of them might consider civil engineers to be wimps.

The attitude exists, but I can't see it myself. If you're smart (and hard-working) enough to calculate stresses and strains you're smart enough for pretty much any kind of techie stuff.

As for respecting humanities I would note that a proper Music degree is as hard to get as anything taught in e-school, and I have great respect for Art majors who emerge from college with both striking visual imagination (which presumably they had going in) and also ass-kicking technique (which presumably they got in school.) Especially if it includes watercolor. Ghod, watercolor is hard. Oh, the list lengthens. Low bows to Language majors who graduate with a functional knowledge of Chinese, Japanese, Russian, etc.
posted by jfuller at 10:13 AM on December 10, 2009


> Isn't that like saying it boggles the mind that people can graduate with a degree in higher
> education without learning close reading or critical theory basics.

It does boggle the mind. But that reduces more to boggling at the notion that 'teaching' can be separated from the thing taught.
posted by jfuller at 10:17 AM on December 10, 2009


Why would a humanities student require a statistics course?

On this point, I certainly think you could argue that for its relevance to nearly everything in the world, an intro statistics course should be part of the baseline requirements for college graduation, alongside basic English or composition.
posted by Hello, Revelers! I am Captain Lavender! at 10:25 AM on December 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


I don't recall a hierarchy among engineers, but as a civil engineer I would've been at the bottom and possibly unaware of said hierarchy. But the stereotypes I do recall that were mechanical engineers all wanted to build cars, chemical engineers got paid a shit ton of money, computer science majors were lobotomized electrical engineers, and aeronautical engineers were like children who never got over their toy planes because there were never any jobs, so there was no point in doing all that work.
posted by electroboy at 10:31 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I agree with Hello, Revelers!. Statistics is a pretty central set of skills, and it really should be taught to all University students, if only for countering the glazing effect that statistics have in public discourse. In general, I think humanities students should get a lot more science and that science should be better taught. This is not to let science students "off the hook" for the humanities courses that they so resent. That stuff can be very useful professionally. The engineer who cleans up well and can talk to clients about a variety of subjects is pretty golden.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:48 AM on December 10, 2009


GenjiandProust: Statistics is a pretty central set of skills, and it really should be taught to all University students

Well, personally I've found learning about probability a lot more useful than learning about statistics. That said, both has been useful.
posted by Kattullus at 11:01 AM on December 10, 2009


I prefer charades.

fucking theater majors.
posted by shmegegge at 11:03 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have bachelor's degrees in both English and Computer Science so totally anecdotally, I found the English stuff much easier, but that may say more about my own abilities/preferences than anything else. Also FWIW if anyone's ever counted me in a survey of "un/employed liberal arts majors," it's worth noting that I am employed as a web developer.
posted by juv3nal at 11:13 AM on December 10, 2009


meh. there are always super smart people who can do math and language equally well, and excel at both. but for the most part, your standard engineering major thinks in terms of problem solving, which doesn't help to study Joyce. I've attempted to help science majors do something as simple as figure out standard scansion for poetry, and they couldn't hear the syllable stresses properly in their heads. and to be honest, I couldn't explain how to do it so they could. it was just a brain difference.

the difference is that in the humanities you don't get points out of a hundred for answers on a test that can quantifiably be right or wrong. and if you're writing an essay, in certain departments you can get by so long as you're not completely full of shit.

but that depends on where you're studying. The lit department where I went to school was fucking hard as hell. It's known as a great lit department, and it's now extremely difficult to get into. (thank fucking god I got in before its reputation spread!) if you try to bullshit an essay in that department you will fail. the professors do not give a shit. (mind you, they'll give you all the time you could ask for for help, so bully for that.) meanwhile, I coasted through entry level math classes because the department there isn't that hot, and there aren't that many students in it to drive up the demand for more challenging courses. it's basically there to meet the requirement that students need to fulfill their math credits. at MIT, I wouldn't make it past a 101 level math course, but I could probably fart on a page and get the basic lit credits I needed if I were a math whiz. (I'm guessing. I have no idea what MIT is like in real life.)

the deal is that some people judge the entire world on their school experience. unfortunately, the one thing college doesn't teach very well is that it's an isolated fairy tale kingdom that is totally unrepresentative of the real world. You want to find someone with a real idea of what the real world is like? find that kid who's on year 11 of working on his doctoral thesis. he's prolonging the thing because he knows the real world sucks and he wants to stay in school as long as he can. he's lame, but he knows what's up.
posted by shmegegge at 11:21 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


but both of them might consider civil engineers to be wimps.

The attitude exists, but I can't see it myself. If you're smart (and hard-working) enough to calculate stresses and strains you're smart enough for pretty much any kind of techie stuff.


When I was in college, a number of the part-time math lecturers for the freshman-level classes were being discussed by members of the CS department in front of a number of the CS students. One of the CS associated professors noted that one of the part-time math lecturers was a civil engineer by training. "Of course she's teaching math," he said, "it's not like civil engineers are really used for anything anymore - it's all been built."

That may be the source of that attitude.
posted by mephron at 11:22 AM on December 10, 2009


I prefer charades.

fucking theater majors.


Ha. I couldn't act my way out of a paper bag, high school musicals notwithstanding (I don't think we had theater as a major...) My major was History and Philosophy of Science - upper level math and science plus a bunch of history, philosophy and soc classes (e.g. alternating Galen, biochem, bathtub row, physics, and the issues surrounding the superconducting supercollider).

I am just really good at charades.
posted by Pax at 11:47 AM on December 10, 2009


I miss the isolated fairy tale kingdom.
posted by Pax at 11:53 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


<english degree>

Brit Lit 101: classmate gets A- for not setting her own hair on fire while playing with her lighter during a discussion about Jane Austen.

Literary Theory and Criticism 406: I get a C+ for not entirely understanding what "the whiteness of the whale" in Moby Dick means through the lens of poststructuralism and postmodernism. This class also features books I have to read to myself out loud because they contains sentences like "The paraliterary space is the space of debate, quotation, partisanship, betrayal, reconciliation; but it is not the space of unity, coherence, or resolution that we think of as constituting the work of art."

</english degree>

Basically, what I'm saying here: people who mock humanities degrees obviously didn't take upper-level classes in them.
posted by harperpitt at 12:12 PM on December 10, 2009 [6 favorites]


Well one of the dumbest women I ever went out on a (singular) date with was a scientists. We went to see "A Beautiful Mind," and afterward I kinda stoked, since the movie had been her pick, so I went in knowing nothing about it, but when we came out I said, "I had no idea that movie was going to be about John Nash. I read a biography about him and some of his game theory essays. That's cool!" She asks, "What's Game Theory?" or "Who is John Nash," or something else completely astounding. At this point I knew discourse about how inaccurate parts of the movie were wasn't going to be appreciated.

Later, after I find out she's a graduate student in physics, I figure I'm going to be on solid ground with Feynman, but after I start to talk about one of his books, or tell a story about of his lectures, I once again get "Who's Feynman?"

I pretty much gave up at that point, but got home to an email that said she didn't want to go out again because she was looking for someone smarter.
posted by cjorgensen at 1:25 PM on December 10, 2009 [6 favorites]


I wonder if some of it comes from the fact that both disciplines use the same grading system on the face of it, but are actually indicating very different things with grades.

I recall an engineering friend of mine being very content with 60% in undergrad, at a quite competitive school.

A 60% in the Philosophy and Political Studies courses that I variously took and TA'd for is a pretty fucking terrible mark. It's also treated as such in situations where your marks are important, like grad school.

This was all early-mid 2000's in Canada. It's possible that grade inflation has changed since then.
posted by generichuman at 1:29 PM on December 10, 2009


Anytime I hear the old chestnut of LOLHumanities trotted out, I've found it's always had a political context. As in, "we want more money/recognition for our initiative, so who can we bash on? Humanities! They can't clearly demonstrate a revenue stream for their work from research to product making money in the marketplace, so they're not worth anything, right?" This is, unfortunately, as true in business and in academe as it is in politics itself.

I therefore take any vitriol I hear from non-humanities majors with a grain of salt; as I'm always left wondering what their motive really is.
posted by LN at 1:46 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm always left wondering what their motive really is.

I'd chalk it up to some mixture of tribalism and the fact that people of that age want some sort of reassurance that the path they're mapping out for themselves is valuable and important. We're generally talking about 18 and 19 year olds that think they're making big decisions about who they want to be, so there's bound to be a little overestimation of the importance of their chosen field. Besides, the math and science crowd is constantly reinforced with the promise of good paying jobs as compensation for the lack of social life technical majors can sometimes entail.
posted by electroboy at 2:24 PM on December 10, 2009


Some of the most bitter misanthropes I've ever known harbored a burning hatred for the humanities. And why shouldn't they? The problem is right in the name.
posted by invitapriore at 5:30 PM on December 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


I never graduated college so I think you're all ridiculous.
posted by jonmc at 5:53 PM on December 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


jonmc speaks the truth.

And what's with this curve bullshit? If the whole class does A work, why can't the whole class have As?
posted by gjc at 6:44 PM on December 10, 2009


Some of the most bitter misanthropes I've ever known harbored a burning hatred for the humanities.

As a counterpoint, some of the most bitter misanthropes I've ever known were humanities majors.
posted by electroboy at 8:34 PM on December 10, 2009


lalex, many social science degrees (political science, sociology) do indeed require statistics classes.

Is this typical? I went to a pretty standard, traditional university that's generally ranked in the NYU range, and they will absolutely give you a social science or humanities degree without taking stats. In fact, you only have to take one math class and two science courses.
posted by lalex at 8:56 PM on December 10, 2009


I went into math specifically because I figured out early on that an English major was going to be too hard. I can write you a paper on time in the works of Faulkner, sure, not a problem, but not having "correct" answers on the test is nerve-wracking.
posted by Limiter at 8:59 PM on December 10, 2009


Why would a humanities student require a statistics course?

Anyone attempting to perform any type of analytic research - and really anyone attempting to understand the world - should have a basic grounding in statistical concepts. Also, probability is a form of statistics.

I have great respect for the set of skills taught in humanities and social science courses. I think the issue is more that it's quite common for university core requirements to double or triple up on humanities, social sciences, etc., and completely bypass math skills.
posted by lalex at 9:11 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


In history the application of statistics is sometimes referred to as cliometrics.
posted by winna at 9:32 PM on December 10, 2009


lalex: Anyone attempting to perform any type of analytic research - and really anyone attempting to understand the world - should have a basic grounding in statistical concepts.

My point wasn't that statistics were pointless. I think statistics are great, in fact I'm something of a datanerd. But a lot of humanities things are really important and useful, e.g. close reading and critical theory. And God knows if people in general were better aware of basic concepts in linguistics and historiography my day to day existence would be freer of annoyance.
posted by Kattullus at 9:47 PM on December 10, 2009


Oh, is this the engineering school stereotypes thread? I wanna play. These are what I got from 4 years (no degree) at Poly (Montreal).
1) Computer engineering: the coding can take ungodly hours, but the exams are easy; the more EEy courses can be very hard however, because CE students don't get the electronics background EE students get. CE students have brown socks.
2) Electrical engineering is sorta hard.
3) Physics engineering is much harder, but they all copy their homework. Not on each other tho: the profs use the same questions from year to year. There's a respect for the mythical first batch of students who had to solve the problems without the answers on hand.
4) Mechanical, Civil and Chemical engineering are about as hard. Civil engineering in the early 90s was perceived to be the road to unemployment. The Chemical engineering program is hourglass shaped: all early courses lead to the same, very hard, course, which in turn leads to all upper courses.
5) Geological engineering is for outdoorsy hippies. Their hardest course comes in the first year.
6) Mining engineering is like Geological engineering, but with much more beer and much less students (around 5-6 a year)
7) Nobody really ever talks about Materials engineering, except the prof who gives the mandatory first year course on materials.
8) Industrial engineering is the easiest; it's where there are the most girls; there's a lot of management content in there.

All of the above drink way, way more than is healthy. There's an official "drinking not required" thing, but (at first) most people involved in the "student life" seem to be all about drinking. It's all beer, which, at the time, student groups kept in fridges all over the school and sold for $1 a bottle.

People tend to study in groups a lot; I tend to be a loner, so I didn't partake much. Maybe I would have graduated if I had been a bit more gregarious.

Because I switched from EE to CE in my first year, I often ended not knowing anyone in a lab. I would often be the only "domestic" student teaming up with students from outside Canada.

As for humanities classes, they really depend on who's teaching and what their expectations are. At the middling university I went after dropping out of engineering, I've had 200-level classes that were much harder than some of my 400-level classes
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:47 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


"[...] other than a massive overhaul of the system where students aren't required to take classes that are irrelevant or largely irrelevant to their future careers [...]"

Gross.
posted by atrazine at 10:12 PM on December 10, 2009


And what's with this curve bullshit? If the whole class does A work, why can't the whole class have As?
posted by gjc at 6:44 PM on December 10 [+] [!]


Only in Lake Wobegone.
Maybe it's different for small classes, but you have to admit that the odds of a class of 40-50 all turning in above average work are pretty remote.
posted by atrazine at 10:31 PM on December 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Actual, real, genuine scientists almost never, in my experience, harsh on the humanities. On the contrary, they tend to care deeply about and often dabble themselves in literature, music, or theater, and respect the study of those things as well.

---

Yep. Surest sign of an ignorant scientist or engineer is one who throws out moronic generalizations about folks who study humanities.


This is so wrong, it's comic.

“The theoretical broadening which comes from having many humanities subjects on the campus is offset by the general dopiness of the people who study these things...”
-Richard Feynman

I love the humanities as much as anyone, that's what I studied too. But let's not pretend that all majors are equally difficult, or have equally intelligent populations of students, or that earning a PhD in Education is an accomplishment equivalent to earning one in Physics. I don't blame the math and science people for looking down on humanities students. The difference in rigor and effort required is obvious. I would wager with high confidence that at any large university, a sizable percentage of the science graduates could complete the requirements for a degree in the humanities, while the proportion of humanities graduates that could earn a degree in the sciences is far smaller.
posted by BigSky at 12:17 AM on December 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I did a double degree in geology and english. To get the required units in geology, I had to attend 6 one hour lectures, 3 three hour practicals, and complete class work and assignments on each of these in between, as well as a week long field trip once a term.

The english equivalent was a one hour lecture, a two hour seminar, and to read a book.

Of course people will think the humanities subject was easier. Not because the humanities are for simple minded children, but because we're brought up to believe that the more time you spend at something, and the more tests there are in it, the harder it is. I know for sure that most of my colleagues in the sciences would have struggled to write a philosophy paper or simple english essay. You only needed to read their lab reports to realise that. It's simply a different kind of knowledge, and a different way of applying it.

To be honest, I feel a little sorry for the people who say 'what a waste of time, right?' when they hear I studied english. It's their loss, and I fail to see why I should be insulted by their ignorant remarks. It'd be just as hurtful if a thief said 'you actually pay for things? What a chump!'.
posted by twirlypen at 1:04 AM on December 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


But a lot of humanities things are really important and useful, e.g. close reading and critical theory.

Oh, I completely agree. I was trying to address the question of why humanities degrees are looked upon as softer, and I think part of the reason is that humanities majors are traditionally not required to complete many math/science/technical course requirements.

On the other side, undergraduate students typically do have to complete significant coursework in the humanities and social sciences. And upper-level coursework in traditional business-type majors, for example, includes lots of straight math classes but also lots of writing and critical qualitative analysis.
posted by lalex at 1:31 AM on December 11, 2009


harperpitt:

It's precisely because of those upper-year classes why majors like english are so easily mockable. What does all that crap mean? What is it for? Do you even understand it yourself? Do you understand it well enough to teach it to me? Would knowing it bring me some valuable insight into the workings of life?
posted by tehloki at 2:27 AM on December 11, 2009


To sum up my point, going to college for 4 years to learn how to analyze literature and expecting to apply it towards earning a living is like expecting watching television to pay off in the end if you just pay really, really close attention.
posted by tehloki at 2:28 AM on December 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


There have already been lots of posts responding to this, but AMEN. I asked my very first question earlier in the week, and I received drive-by sniping on three out of four answers. (One answer was fully sincere.)

Now I know that I shouldn't have mentioned where I work (a major university, although thank heaven I didn't name the actual campus), or what I was doing that prompted the question (going to a conference to connect with university presses, which is my job).

Too bad there's not a MetaFilter that screens for anti-intellectualism.

BTW, I was a humanities major all the way, got a Ph.D. that had everybody asking "What are you going to do with that?" but now I have a dream job that they all think I must have lucked into. Fortunately, I also have wonderful colleagues, many of whom have run into the same thing (one of them, an associate Dean, said her mother still thinks she's the secretary to the Dean).

Life is best served with a sense of humor, of course, but thank you for pointing this trend out and making me feel better about my post.
posted by anonyme at 3:21 AM on December 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I asked my very first question earlier in the week, and I received drive-by sniping on three out of four answers. (One answer was fully sincere.)

This is a rather mystifying characterization of the answers to your question.
posted by lalex at 3:39 AM on December 11, 2009


Umm, if you read the Kattullus' link, you'll see their conclusions and statistics disagree with his interpretation. Indeed, their very first recommendations states "If PhD programs in English continue to train their graduates solely for the future professoriat, then doctoral programs need to reduce their enrollment", which was my point.

Ten years out, only 57% had realistic tenure prospects, but often teaching for colleges that are essentially glorified high schools, and hence their PhD seems like irrelevant training. Very very few held tenure at research institutions. Worse, 14% held poorly paid exploitive year-to-year academic posts. I expect among the 16% holding BGN jobs there are numerous people who actually use the PhD training. So we're most likely seeing only between 1/2 and 2/3 of English PhDs ever get jobs for which their PhD training is particularly relevant.

I also know math PhDs with administrative or even tenured positions for which their math PhD training is not relevant, although obviously it helped them get those jobs. Is there a difference? Yes, but not so much, more math PhDs take BGN jobs, about 25% vs. 16% for literature. Also the adjuncts are more often drawn from grad students in other departments, like engineering.

All the recommendations proposed by Kattullus' linked study are extremely sound, not just for the humanities, but all academic disciplines. Two other points :

(1) Why train PhDs primarily for faculty positions? Academia's problems mostly vanish if 50% of PhDs take BGN jobs. UCLA recently won an AMS award partially for asking math grad students to work with engineering faculty during a summer.

(2) Why permit exploitive adjunct positions? A federal law could effectively prohibit universities that administer federal grants from exploiting young PhDs by establishing minimum salaries for people who teach multiple semesters.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:21 AM on December 11, 2009


As an aside, we all know that different degrees are perceived to have different difficulties, and that students make decisions based upon these perceptions. Of course, individual departments may change the reality, but interestingly even the perception differs between cultures. I've generally found that the hard sciences were considered the most difficult in the U.S. and U.K. but engineering is definitely viewed as harder in Turkey. In France, I got the impression that a degree from the Ecole Polytechnique is more prestigious than a degree from the Ecole Normale Superieure, but I'm unsure about engineering vs. hard sciences at ordinary French universities.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:53 AM on December 11, 2009


teaching for colleges that are essentially glorified high schools, and hence their PhD seems like irrelevant training. Very very few held tenure at research institutions.

Yaknow, I have to say, as someone who went to college at a no-name state school that was not a research university, my professors were still required to publish in their field and concentration and teach courses relevant to their studies. Sure, they may have had to teach a few more comp and survey classes over all, because there were no TAs to teach those courses, but, for those with tenure, the situation was very, very different from high school teaching.

I do agree with you on adjuncting--and I'd add that TAing is problematic in the same way at many schools. It's exploitative, underfunded labor that takes away tenured positions and lines the pockets of the administration. One of my graduate school cohorts is taking a position adjuncting this semester where she's teaching six classes, with no health insurance, for under $20,000 a year. Of course, because she's never worked outside academia, she has no idea how cruddy that is.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:12 AM on December 11, 2009


Seconding lalex. Anonyme, I'm mystified.
posted by chinston at 6:03 AM on December 11, 2009


I'm under the impression that many universities use junior and senior level humanities courses as the humanities electives for everyone, so your engineering and science majors often end up taking three semesters of upper level humanities courses right along with humanities majors. In comparison, we often see science departments offering a separate non-rigorous courses, ala physics for non-majors. And that's really the entire basis for my "easier material" comment. :)

You could obviously judge this more objectively by simply comparing the length of the official trail of prerequisites for senior level courses in your favorite course catalog, which still does not say if classes are easy, but suggests whether non-majors will commonly use that course for breadth requirements, electives, etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:26 AM on December 11, 2009


lalex: Oh, I completely agree. I was trying to address the question of why humanities degrees are looked upon as softer, and I think part of the reason is that humanities majors are traditionally not required to complete many math/science/technical course requirements.

The reason is that people are stuck in a harder/softer rhetorical framework and that's a comparison that leaves the humanities always on the defensive (compare small/big government). No academic program can teach students everything that's worth studying. It's impossible. Academic programs make different, valid choices based on what they're trying to teach. There will always be holes. A good university, however, provides the opportunity for students to fill these holes of their own volition.
posted by Kattullus at 6:43 AM on December 11, 2009


I also know math PhDs with administrative or even tenured positions for which their math PhD training is not relevant, although obviously it helped them get those jobs. Is there a difference? Yes, but not so much, more math PhDs take BGN jobs, about 25% vs. 16% for literature. Also the adjuncts are more often drawn from grad students in other departments, like engineering.

That's not much difference, though is it? A distinct minority in both cases. I read physics at what is either the best or the second best physics department in the UK and the majority of my classmates didn't go on to do PhDs. This isn't necessarily a problem, and it's the same in the humanities. Logically, not everyone who studies something as an undergraduate will end up as a professor, if that were not so then you would eventually have more lecturers than students!
posted by atrazine at 6:51 AM on December 11, 2009

I went to a pretty standard, traditional university that's generally ranked in the NYU range, and they will absolutely give you a social science or humanities degree without taking stats.
At my university, it is entirely possible to get a humanities degree without taking a statistics course. You don't need a stats class to major in English or Spanish. However, social science disciplines that use a lot of quantitative data, like psychology and sociology, require majors to take at least one stats class. Shockingly, departments tend to determine their requirements based on the demands of the particular discipline.
I'm under the impression that many universities use junior and senior level humanities courses as the humanities electives for everyone, so your engineering and science majors often end up taking three semesters of upper level humanities courses right along with humanities majors.
At my university, students typically take lower-level humanities and social sciences courses to fulfill their general education requirements. Some of these are introductory level courses for majors, but a lot of them are specially designed for non-majors, and in some instances departments will not allow them to count towards the major. And I see a lot of students crash and burn in the introductory courses designed for majors. The introductory poli sci and psychology courses are actually sort of famous for being general education classes that a lot of students fail.
posted by craichead at 7:31 AM on December 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Too bad there's not a MetaFilter that screens for anti-intellectualism.

There more or less is and you're on it. The bar for participation here is a bit higher than the $5 entry fee. You also have to be able to string words together in a coherent fashion, have internet access, be willing to take a position and defend it, have somewhat thick skin (or avoid contentious topics), etc.

I've been "on the internet" since before there was a web, and I can't think of any sites that ever had the same level of discourse as meta.

It's a place that celebrates intelligence in my experience. In fact, the only reason I joined was so I could tell people I was a fucking genius.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:24 PM on December 11, 2009


If you prefer, we can substitute "philistinism" or "illiteracy" for "anti-intellectualism," but there's enough of it on display here in this thread alone that it's very clear that Metafilter doesn't screen for it. The number of people who are happy to air their own ignorant parochialism here — and who even took this thread as an invitation to do so — is, to me, still surprising, maybe more than it should be; but I guess it's basically just a shame. I think most people who don't know linear algebra know they don't know linear algebra, and probably even have an idea of how to find out what its uses are, but apparently a lot of people who don't know, say, close reading or historiography not only underestimate their ignorance but think that this underestimation reflects something about the subjects of their ignorance.

For the record, as someone who has spent time as a student in both the humanities and hard science, and later taught (humanities), in a variety of higher-ed institutions, I'm pretty confident that big hand-waving generalizations about which department's students are smarter than which other one's, and whose faculty are "dopey," are mostly just expressions of prejudice, and in every other case when they seem locally plausible are completely local-context-dependent.

Also, anonyme, I have no idea why you think those answers were "sniping," and I'm pretty glad I didn't try to answer your question now that you've said that! But you still might be interested to know that I considered trying to answer but found the question so lacking in specifics about what you do, and what you want to get from your meetings with editors, that I couldn't possibly answer without knowing more. I suspect I was not the only reader who passed it by for this reason. If, for whatever reason, you don't like the answers you received, please don't discount the possibility that the question's phrasing and especially its vagueness were to blame for this.
posted by RogerB at 1:19 PM on December 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


Basically, what I'm saying here: people who mock humanities degrees obviously didn't take upper-level classes in them.

I don't mock humanities degrees.

But seriously, I took 3 400+ level courses (including a 600 course on the American Short Story) as part of the advanced liberal arts requirement to my BSEE and sailed through them.

It's not that the work is a joke - I'm sure to move from a B to an A in those classes would have required far more effort than I put forth. But to get a B in any engineering class required a lot more effort than a B in those classes did.

I'm not claiming moral superiority or anything, but the reason people think the Humanities are easy is because, well, they are.

The numbers back this up. When I was in, the washout rate for the engineering program was ~60%. The average GPA was 1.2 points lower in engineering than it was in the Humanities. The department and professors worked very hard to try and improve on those numbers - with most initiatives working to ease the learning curve: More office hours, more TA's, more tutors, more study groups, etc. (I myself very nearly quit the program at one point).

They had to do this not because the students in the humanities are so much smarter and don't need the help - it's because the engineering coursework is objectively harder.

You can argue about whether or not that needs to be the case - especially as engineering in particular is viewed as a professional degree - but it's a fallacy to state that it is not the case.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 2:34 PM on December 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


They had to do this not because the students in the humanities are so much smarter and don't need the help - it's because the engineering coursework is objectively harder.

I'm not convinced that you're correct, both because my limited anecdotal data concerning the difficulty of individual classes contradicts your limited anecdotal data, and because your judgment of the difficulty of engineering subjects versus the difficulty of humanities subjects is filtered through the abstracting layer of the modern university's academic model. I don't think that you can use data about academic performance to say anything meaningful about the disciplines themselves.
posted by invitapriore at 3:24 PM on December 11, 2009


There is a very big difference, which a lot of people seem to be missing, between humanities classes at your university and humanities as a field.

You took an easy class? Great. Your school didn't care much about the humanities, or your professor didn't care much about teaching you. That doesn't mean you, having taken a handful of classes at any undergrad level, are qualified to talk about the difficulty of the humanities in general.
posted by oinopaponton at 3:44 PM on December 11, 2009


Biologists are looked down upon by the engineers, who are looked down upon by the chemists, who are, of course, looked down upon by the physicists, who, in turn, are looked down upon by the mathematicians.

I am a mathematician and this is BS, which makes me think that lots of the other remarks made by people about fields not their own, or in which they took a course or two, are probably BS as well.
posted by escabeche at 7:00 PM on December 11, 2009


When I was in, the washout rate for the engineering program was ~60%. The average GPA was 1.2 points lower in engineering than it was in the Humanities.

Does that mean the courses are objectively harder or that the engineering program is invested in forcing "weak" students to to leave the program as a part of the program mindset (desirable or not)? At my (engineering-oriented) university, the answer was pretty clearly the former. Maybe people who can't hack the studying and coursework required don't belong there, but if the university accepts qualified people and 60% are washing out of the engineering program, it doesn't say anything negative about the humanities program.
posted by immlass at 7:14 PM on December 11, 2009


And now anonyme's account is disabled? I was really hoping for some clarification of her question (and/or what that "sniping" quip was about).
posted by RogerB at 10:22 PM on December 11, 2009


And now anonyme's account is disabled?

Wow, bizarre. I'm sympathetic to the issues raised by this post, but I didn't really see the problem she had with the answers to her question.
posted by lalex at 11:24 PM on December 11, 2009


Anonyme's account is disabled?! ...Color me bummed.

Ironically, I checked back in specifically to see if Anonyme had provided enlightenment regarding her characterization.

I will look at the bright side, and be grateful that I dodged a bullet there. Earlier, I was about to make an incredibly insightful post, resplendent with deathless prose regarding the perception of the humanities, etc.etc... And, uh,... To third registration of mystification with her characterization of responses to her earlier post.

I'm glad I waited, 'cause if I had posted, I'd be bummed for days, wondering if she had disabled her account because of something I said, or if it was because of the way I said it. (Otoh, now I'm gonna wonder if that non-post would have been just the tipping point to keep her on...)

Anonyme: If you're still following this, we all still love you, and want to give you a hug. (Seriously, c'mone back (and you don't have to accept a hug if you think they're creepy))
posted by Tuesday After Lunch at 3:13 AM on December 12, 2009


Umm, mathematicians don't look down upon physicists, nor visa versa, not any place I've seen. Sure, there are various jokes about purity, but not difficulty.

I suspect schools that use senior level courses for everyone's electives are trying to (a) simply interest more non-majors in the subject or the minor, and (b) let the faculty teach more fun courses. I've no idea what effect this has upon the program's prestige.

Of course, STEM programs are often extremely watered down too, often so much so that strong graduates with good grades will still flunk the subject GREs. But, no mater how much they've watered down the major, a STEM department simply cannot offer subjects like quantum mechanics, algebraic topology, physical chemistry, or information theory that both covers the material for majors while simultaneously giving non-STEM majors an overview.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:52 AM on December 12, 2009


And now anonyme's account is disabled?

Most boring flame out ever.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:54 AM on December 12, 2009


Statistically near-impossible, but still possible. Unless there is a curve.
posted by gjc at 10:10 AM on December 12, 2009


Most boring flame out ever.

I agree. I fail to see "drive-by sniping" in the answers to the question and I'm in the humanities. Actually, fine arts. Even more useless!

In all seriousness if you don't bother to re-frame your question to make it more answerable and then complain that people are "drive-by sniping" when they're clearly not (please see discussions on this site about I/P, date-rape, circumcision etc. for real vitriol) then perhaps MeFi isn't the place for you.
posted by ob at 10:47 AM on December 12, 2009


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