The Future of the Humanities by Visiting Professor Alan Liu

In this presentation on November 5, 2015, entitled “The Future of the Humanities”, Professor Alan Liu focused on the larger conversation in the public realm around the so-called crisis in the Humanities. We’ve all seen the articles and blogs about the irrelevance of Liberal Arts and poor employability prospects. He questioned whether or not there is a crisis, mentioning articles like Blaine Greteman’s “It’s the End of the Humanities as We Know It, And I Feel Fine” (2014) and Benjamin Schmidt’s “A Crisis in the Humanities?” (2013) and “Crisis in the Humanities? Or Just Women in the Workplace?” (2013). Perhaps the drop-off in humanities majors is due to the end of the spike in baby boomers or women now entering professional disciplines in larger numbers. He referred to Stefan Collini’s “Seeing a Specialist: The Humanities as Academic Disciplines” (2015).

Liu spoke of his experience at the University of California Santa Barbara during the troublesome post-recession time when funding cuts meant a change from the collegial open-space plan to the sequestering of faculty away from staff and students. [This reminds me of the situation here at the University of Canterbury, where postgraduate students are placed in cubicles behind locked doors in another building and don’t mingle much with their supervisors or administrative staff. It doesn’t seem like a big deal until you realize how cut-off you are from decisions that affect you.] Tellingly, the only thing left after the move was the ethernet outlet.

Enter of which Liu is a co-founder. He discussed its roles of advocacy and research for the Humanities. These include op-eds and research pieces, infographics, mini-documentary videos, and an emphasis on plain and simple language for non-academics. It also hosts workshops and colloquias that get people together, and is working on a new project called “WhatEvery1Says” which is about analyzing the discourse about the Humanities with the aid of technology. He made an interesting point that they want to also look at how media discourse might affect public policy by looking at government data. On a positive note, people still feel good enough about their Humanities degrees to include them in obituary and wedding announcements, indicating that they are an important part of their identity.

One of the big takeaways for me was his discussion of frameworks and how you have to be strategic about your argument because people don’t think logically and rationally — they put information they hear in terms of a simplified framework that they already have (like the family). [I’m going to check out George Lakoff’s “Framing 101: How to Take Back Public Discourse” (2004) and the for possible insights into feminist activism.] Humanists, he said, have always had to balance these two frames in showing their value to society. On the one hand, there is the big thematic frame which has the Humanities helping ameliorate social problems. On the other hand, there is the personal episodic frame which runs along the lines of how reading poetry changed one’s life.

He believes that the stance the Humanities needs to take is one that focuses on society and people and how their well-being will be stronger with the Humanities. It should be “The Future and the Humanities”. We can’t rebut the opposition’s arguments and keep rehearsing the problems if we want to change the conversation. He mentioned New Zealand’s new science education initiative called “A Nation of Curious Minds” [which I’ve heard a lot about] in comparison with his article “The Humanities and Tomorrow’s Discoveries” (2012) and the use of the term discovery.

An interesting aside was that Geoffrey Galt Harpham argues that the Humanities are actually American because the Cold War and Sputnik propelled the U.S. government to spend money on showing its difference from the Russian space race. Back then, money was poured into the sciences and the humanities.

Liu challenged us to rethink the terms we use when communicating with those outside our fields, because he said “critical thinking” and “close reading” are non-starters to them. [This was a good point that I need to think more about in terms of how we tell our graduates to sell themselves on their CVs/resumes.] We ultimately need to show how we are doing the work of building a human being and act like innovators in this age of innovation. Perhaps borrowing terms from the sciences is not a bad strategy, as words like discovery and insight do capture the work we do, just in different ways.