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At Stanford Conference, Humanities PhDs Hope to Storm Silicon Valley

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"PhDs are the most useless people!" exclaims Vivek Wadhwa, Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School's Labor and Worklife Program at the May 11, 2011 Bibliotech Conference held at Stanford University.

"I've known PhDs who aren't useless," laughs Russell A. Berman, Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

"But, actually this is true...." Hans Ulrich "Sepp" Gumbrecht, Albert Guérard Professor of Literature at Stanford University, jumps to his feet from the audience: "And our very uselessness is what makes us valuable."

"Indeed," intercedes Vivek Ranadivé, Chairman and CEO, TIBCO, "I do think that innovation comes from those people who aren't doing something considered 'useful' in the narrow sense. In fact it is that special research mode of doing something other than the same old 'useful tasks' that enables Nobel Laureates to come up with their great discoveries."

Sounds of agreement rumble over the audience of Silicon Valley executives and Stanford Humanities students and faculty. This conversation from the first panel of the Bibilotech Conference articulated a clear challenge: What can humanities PhDs offer the world outside academia? Is there a larger role for humanists with higher education degrees and advanced knowledge in the world of financial and technological innovation?

Conference organizers Anaïs Saint-Jude, a Stanford PhD candidate completing a thesis on French theater in the 17th century and Professor David Palumbo-Liu, chair of Comparative Literature at Stanford University, organized this conference to seek some answers to these questions and invite greater dialogue between thriving tech companies and higher education.

The conference was live-streamed for a world audience and included Patrick Byrne, chairman and CEO of Overstock.com; June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media; John Hagel, co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for Edge; Damon Horowitz, in-house philosopher and director of engineering at Google; Marissa Mayer, Google's vice-president for consumer products ; Michael Moritz, managing partner of Sequoia Capital; as well as Vivek Ranadivé. Stanford President John Hennessy presided over the conference and was joined by Stanford Faculty and 200 audience members. Many of the panelists and speakers have humanities PhDs: Cisco System's Laura Roman has a PhD in English; Overstock's Patrick Byrne has a Stanford PhD in philosophy; Google's Damon Horowitz, who also has a PhD in philosophy from Stanford, now works in artificial intelligence. Ovidian's Alexander J. Cohen has a PhD in Comparative Literature and also teaches at UC Berkeley.

Bringing together so many diverse personalities who have successfully bridged both worlds attests to the possibilities for change. Typically tech industry people earn higher salaries and are quantitative and outcome driven, while humanities scholars spend many years -- too many! agree both Berman and Wadhwa -- getting their degrees, only to find that there are few jobs waiting for them. Surely, it is no secret that humanities PhDs have been struggling to find jobs since even before the dot.com boom in the early 1990s.

Palumbo-Liu, acknowledging the hard times for humanities PhDs, hopes that the conference will "not discourage them from following through on their degrees, but encourage them to look at a wider set of options in how they might take that creativity, intelligence, and passion and make vital contributions to a new global culture" because, as many humanities job seekers have learned, "the days when you can expect to get a teaching position with a PhD are gone. Things are far less certain than they used to be."

In this context, many welcomed the hopeful message from Marissa Meyer: "There are more jobs than ever in Silicon Valley. We can't hire enough people, and we know there are very few jobs in academia." Saint-Jude believes that as scholars, humanities PhDs have skills attractive to the business world: "a passion for learning, a comfort with risk, the ability to think outside the box and to see the big picture."

The question remains, how to train humanities PhDs to be better prepared for life outside of academia. Some of the audience members questioned whether the isolated experience of scholarly research needed to be revised to include more team work and more connection to technology and business fields before the degree, so as to reduce the difference in cultures afterward.

Russell Berman, who is also President of the Modern Language Association, argues here as he has elsewhere for the MLA, that the dissertation and doctoral curriculum need to be revised. Such changes will benefit not only academia but also the scholars who hope to work beyond the university. Berman maintains there is no need for a doctorate to take up to 9 years to complete, when in fact students could be researching, writing, communicating in the public sphere all along the way and end up with a set of more productive skills and accomplishments in a shorter timeframe.

For Berman, PhDs offer their special ability to write and analyze cultures, examine histories and interpret events. Key among these skills is also second and third language mastery, which has strengthened the skills in their native languages. Humanities graduates have a comparative advantage in language. Adapting to new formats and audiences for writing beyond the traditional refereed journals and university presses will open the door for more connections between university life and the business world.

In this new world, facility in translating various cultural ideas into other contexts is paramount. Vivek Ranadivé agrees and asserts, "Where the 20th century was about content, the 21 will be about context."

Many others also concur. Patrick Byrne, Damon Horowitz and John Hagel argue that the humanities PhD already possess a special ethos greatly needed in the business world. For each of them, people who study the human sciences have the opportunity to ask questions and lead the business world towards a more examined life. Byrne asserts that such a background can help a business professional bring ethical and quality of life considerations into the corporate world and that one need not necessarily "rise above one's principles," as he has often heard.

Among the great successes of this conference is the take-home message: The skills of critical thinking and contemplation should not merely be left to those in the university; rather, they are essential for public life. Sepp Gumbrecht's praise of academic "uselessness" draws on Plato's famous claim in The Republic that philosophers need to be useless in the sense that they should arise above the narrow haggling of everyday life to grasp the larger questions that face humanity: how will we survive? What is the right way to live? What will we teach our children?

The question for the business world remains how best to make use of such a humanistic skill set. Humanities PhDs can surely perform quantitative tasks and help companies increase revenue by instrumentalizing their critical skills, but then the question becomes, what can companies do to better this world? Patrick Byrne had a few answers, including: "You'll find you don't need that much money." This claim, however, has made him by his own assertion, "one of the most hated men on Wall Street." Meanwhile, Sepp Gumbrecht avers with utmost humanist sincerity: "I love money, how do I get that Porsche?"