Kelly J. Baker

Editor at Women in Higher Education

A Rallying Cry for the Humanities

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Everywhere I look, I’m hearing Chicken Little stories about the decline and fall of the humanities: There’s a decline in majors! (On second thought, maybe not.) A decline in funding! A decline in women’s enrollment! Our fate as humanists is a constant topic of debate and consternation. Mark Sample, a visiting associate professor of digital studies at Davidson College, has even created a Twitter bot, @SaveHumanities, which offers machine-generated insights—“we need to quit being so damn pretty,” “we need to make our own cryptocurrency,” “we need a more awesome story”—on how to save our supposedly dying discipline.

The 140-character recommendations are often as funny as they are outrageous. Yet they make a clear point: The lament over the humanities’ decline has become a popular genre piece, each new installment offering we humanists a chance for hand-wringing and hate-reading.

Is our discipline really on the wane? Yes. No. Maybe. The reactions are mixed. Rosanna Warren, a professor at the University of Chicago, argues in The New Republic that the humanities are alive and well, but only outside of academia. She blames scholars for decreasing enrollments, arguing that “we filled our books and courses with wildly specialized jargon” and “narrowed the reading lists to a coterie of approved gurus.” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof accuses academics of being out of touch and fostering “a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” He’d have us believe the public intellectual is disappearing, and that ivory-tower academics are at fault.

On the other hand, Corey Robin and Gwendolyn Beetham counter Kristof’s claims by cataloging the numerous academic authors he overlooks; others are tweeting rebuttals at #EngagedAcademics right now. Ezra Klein, meanwhile, quips that journalists might be out of a job if academics were more accessible. He blames professional journals and papers for the “chasm” between humanities professors and the public.

I have no particular desire to enter the fracas over who’s to blame. But all this focus on the fate of the humanities has made one thing abundantly clear to me: We who work in these fields need to get better at describing what exactly we do and why it is important—to students, to university administrators, and most importantly, to the broader public.

We need to puncture the silly public misperceptions of professors as characters straight out of Dead Poets Society (get off your desks now). Yes, I know we are engaged, but apparently the public doesn’t. So we’d better proclaim more loudly and clearly what our work actually entails—including research and teaching, its value and relevance to society, and the conditions we labor under.

Frankly, I think we should all take a page from science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, the well-regarded astrophysicist who directs the Hayden Planetarium, writes popular science books, regularly appears on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and is the new host of an updated version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on television. Tyson is a rock star. He can explain the complexities of science, and he can banter back and forth with Jon Stewart.

Listening to him describe the cosmos makes me yearn to be a scientist. (Sorry, Neil, I’m a humanist.) He’s a key advocate of the centrality of science to both a well-rounded education and a more informed public. Imagine if more humanities scholars emulated his example and explained our studies’ relevance without sacrificing analysis and complexity.

The humanities teach us about what humans have wrought in the past and present with a keen eye to the future; more importantly, they teach us how to think critically about what it means to be human and inhuman in different places, spaces, and times. Humanities education, then, is just as important as science education; it is also essential to an informed public. Let’s tell people why.

In July, Tyson did an interview with Point of Inquiry in which he explained to the larger public why science communication is so critical. For Tyson, science, at its most basic, is “a way of knowing” that connects you to other humans and the universe, “the cosmos.”

He also provided a variety of tips for effective communication and advocacy, which are broadly applicable to other academic disciplines:

First, embrace mass media. The only way to reach a larger public is to make yourself available. Do interviews, write for popular magazines and blogs, and chat with local news organizations. Yes, this takes time and effort, both of which are in short supply, but it’s important to do what you can. Recognize that different mediums have different parameters. And different audiences.

Tyson encourages scholars to know their audience and “package” their messages accordingly. Do your homework. Listen to previous interviews of a radio show to learn what kinds of questions the host asks. Read posts and articles to figure out publications’ preferred style and length. Watch the TV show you will appear on. And prep for press interviews! For some tips on speaking to the media, check out this guide from ProfHacker blogger Brian Croxall.

Improve your communication style. Tyson and Croxall both emphasize the importance of honing your message and explaining things in terms that people can understand. Unfortunately, that’s not usually scientists’ strong suit, Tyson notes. The same could be said of many humanities scholars. In fact, it’s probably not a stretch to say that we sometimes speak a different language than our students, administrators, and the public.

That’s all the more reason to ditch the jargon and consider how to translate your knowledge for various audiences in fun and interesting ways. Tyson, who is a master at this, once explained that "on Venus you could cook a 16-inch pepperoni pizza in seven seconds, just by holding it out to the air.” I’ve explained the significance of religious intolerance in the U.S. by comparing the Klan to the vampire-hating humans of True Blood. You too can popularize the humanities and your work without selling out what you value, but first you need to find common ground with your audience.

That said, resist the urge to dumb down the message. While it’s important to tailor your message and delivery tactics to the particular medium—for example, a well-placed soundbite can help get your message across in a TV or radio interview—that doesn’t mean you should sacrifice complexity to reach a larger audience. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your audience isn’t smart enough to understand your research, Tyson says. If you can’t communicate what you do with varied audiences, the fault is yours, not theirs.

But, Kelly, what if my research is complicated?, you might ask. The world is a complicated place, but complexity is not the end point of discussion. It’s just the beginning. Slow down and show people how complicated, messy, intersectional, and entangled our worlds are. Walk them through your subject in a way they can understand. Bring your message to them.

Last but not least, keep communication channels open. To paraphrase Tyson, don’t start the conversation with a fight. Our goal should be to start dialogues, not to win arguments. Yes, you might think someone is wrong, but that does not mean a recitation of wrongness should be your opening salvo. It shuts down a conversation before it can even begin. Your aim should be to inform audiences, not to bludgeon them with your scholarly authority. Better to call attention to errors and inaccuracies through explanation, not denunciation.

Look, no matter the state of the humanities, humanists have a decision to make: Do we engage with the larger public and make a case for the importance of what we do? Or do we continue to run around and warn one another that the sky is falling? I hope humanities scholars will embrace the former option and follow the example of Neil deGrasse Tyson and other science communicators. Let’s create a form of humanities communication that counters the pernicious image of stuffy irrelevance and armchair analysis.

In Religion of Fear, Jason Bivins concludes his study of the erotics of religious fear by examining how scholars in the humanities, particularly religious studies, represent our work. “Americans,” he writes, “need different stories about ourselves,” because the “standard tales...only confirm what we tell ourselves is true: that what we think and write and do cannot make a difference.” Do scholars make a difference? Have we been lulled into complacency by these standard tales? Are we promoting narratives of our own irrelevance? Are we passively accepting our fates as writers of articles and monographs that no one reads?

Perhaps our scholarship is not important to the world around us, so we can’t make a change. After all, students want more practical degrees, and administrators don’t understand the value of the humanities. What can we do if this is the vision of the humanities bandied about by pundits and news outlets?

Bivins urges readers to abandon the stories of their own defeat. Let’s push back against the claims of irrelevance and change the narrative. Let’s communicate what we do and why we do it well. Let’s not hide behind jargon and complexity as a reason to not engage. I think it’s time for a more awesome story.

Image: Neil deGrasse Tyson, in a scene from Cosmos. (Fox)

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