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10/06/2015 12:12 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2016

To Data or Not To Data: Capturing the Humanities in Motion

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Originally posted on the Academy Data Forum of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Oct. 2nd, 2015

When the Humanities Indicators project began, its goal was to provide systematic and coordinated, reliable and usable data on the health of the humanities similar to the measurements advanced by the Science and Engineering Indicators. Because this data did not exist for the humanities before 2002, they would be used to convey the significance of what the humanities do, their importance for the national well-being, and their status and current condition.1 In other words, the goal of this project by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences was to help mobilize the humanities.

Over a decade later, we may need to ask ourselves whether a factual approach is the best measure to capture the post-2015 humanities. Today, our world has become more fluid, fast, and global, but also more local, accessible, and malleable.2 How, then, do we capture the worth of fields that are in motion without running the risk of immobilizing the entire system?

Take for instance the recent Humanities Indicators reports on occupations, employment rates, and earnings. They will no doubt shape public opinion, but will those who influence public minds and pocketbooks consider the complexity and limitations of this data?

As the American Academy observes in its corrective report The State of the Humanities: Higher Education 2015, there are many questions and contradictions that factor into and determine the outcome of collected metrics such as these. The overall story of decline of the humanities can have quite a different ending if one focuses on particular parts of the data. For instance, some of these measurements show that more than double the number of community college vs. bachelor's level students earned degrees in the humanities or a degree that requires a substantial amount of training in the humanities. Were one also to favor the increase in "Humanities Bachelor's Degrees Earned as "Second Majors", this particular tale could even take a surprising twist and suggest a storyline in the vein of "The Phenomenal Rise of the Humanities."

From decline to rise, any story depends on the bits and bytes we pick and choose and the questions we ask along the way. In the case above, we might wonder when and why we talk about "first" or "second" degree status among majors. Could social value or something as simple as the available spaces in a Registrar's computer program have something to do with it? Might the Millennials be ahead of the curve and, despite or because of the value attributed to economics, recognize that dual-degrees are an especially important commodity in this age of employment mobility? A subsequent look at initiatives, such as Student Advocates for the Future of the Humanities, might even suggest that the next generation feels quite invested in the future of the humanities. Their insights--shared, remixed, and mashed up--could even shift this emerging tale of rise to that of a viral uprising.

The mere act of counting, as I mention in "Counting (on) Success: Does an Education in the Humanities Count on Today's Day and Age?" is necessarily demarcating and conflicting. In terms of these recent Humanities Indicators reports, for instance, it warrants remembering that the fields used toward the tabulation of what counts as "humanities," or "substantial humanities content," by sheer need of data management, include some but not other disciplines. Yet the amount of humanities content at any given college, school, or program is constantly changing. How do we capture in numbers the many ways in which all that we define as "humanistic" is connecting and mobilizing the next generation?

What would happen to the results derived from the list of tabulated disciplines3 if they included the medical humanities, environmental humanities, programs in business ethics, studies in law or anthropology with strong humanistic content or computer science courses that focus on the storytelling features of video game design? When team-taught courses such as "The Chemistry of Art" or "The Brain on Music" are taught by faculty members from two different disciplines, are they included in this inventory?

Metrics isolate units in a world that is increasingly mobile, merging, and, to use a term coined by media scholar Henry Jenkins and his team, "spreadable." These are exciting times. And the importance of this period in history is hailed in academia, the business industry, grant-giving institutions, and society at large through terms such as immersion, integration, collaboration, or innovation. Might our reliance on data points interfere with the advancements of an age yearning for a new frame of reference?

Consider, for instance, a recent New York Times article titled "The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn't." This fascinating take on the present and future careers of a rising creative class suggests that the technological and economic trends that are blurring the lines between consumption and production are allowing more individuals to make a good living from what they love to do. In fact, this piece suggests that we are witnessing the rise of an entrepreneurial environment with incredibly interesting ramifications for the arts and humanities as professional fields. How do we account for this increasing group of self-employed individuals who may or may not have gained a degree in a core humanities discipline in college, yet indicate that there is an exciting future ahead? And how can we do a better job capturing this future for the humanities?

If particular sound bites of data are singled out or used at face value to present the "truth" of the current condition of the humanities--as this most recent example from MarketWatch titled "These College Majors Are Dying" readily underscores--then we run the risk of building unstable scaffoldings for the educational structures of tomorrow.

To mobilize the humanities means that we are hoping to affect the future by presenting a snapshot of today. When data alone are used to code and assign priorities and resources, they can limit our ability to imagine our tomorrow.4 What is a measured, fair way to draw conclusions from measurements? The humanities themselves are a framework for answering that question.

We have a social responsibility to reshape what really counts among all the counting. I deeply believe that the transformative and perhaps even surprising identity of tomorrow's humanities must be built on the solidity of our century-old foundations. But to build an educational vision for tomorrow, we also need to capture the possibilities and the limitations of all disciplinary contributions in this era of mobility. How do they augment and enhance each other's missions, with and without data, in a variety of learning environments? Raising just one pillar over another, as today's conversations about the importance of STEM fields indicate, may very well make entire structures crumble to the ground.

Which data and which conversations will holistically serve to capture our humanities in motion and allow our institutions soar? That is the question.

ENDNOTES

1 From Francis Oakley's remarks in "Making the Humanities Count: The Importance of Data," page 5.
2 This idea of a mobile (and mobilizing) humanities comes from David Theo Goldberg in The Afterlife of the Humanities. In this piece he suggests the need for a more "agile" humanities that can capture "the range of meaning-making conditions we face historically and contemporarily."
3 The fields used in the current tabulation of the Humanities Indicators reports include: area ethnic and civilization studies, journalism, linguistic and comparative language and literature, French, German, Latin, common foreign language studies, other foreign languages, English language and literature, composition and rhetoric, liberal arts, humanities, philosophy and religious studies, art history and criticism, history, and United States history.
4 Under the organizing topic of "What Are the Humanities Good For?" the American Academy has been exploring "whether and how the benefits of humanities study and activity can be properly measured and described."