Humanities majors and tech training

December 28, 2017

I know that a couple of Google studies (Project Aristotle and Project Oxygen) have prompted excitement among humanities advocates about the value of humanities majors on the job market

I respect the people who are excited, but at the same time, I feel like I need to push back, a bit.

My goal isn’t to be a DH killjoy. I’m pushing back because I think the narratives of success are premature and oversimplified, as I’ll explain below, and I think that oversimplifying the narrative tends to impede good and difficult work that people are trying to do, rather than support it.

What I’m seeing in pieces like Cathy Davidson’s and David Perry’s is an assumption that these valuable soft skills are things that humanities majors (broadly, at multiple institutions) are already training people to have. I disagree; I don’t think that’s the case at all.

Let me be clear: there are some people doing really wonderful work in this area. The most established program that I’m aware of is the Creative Media and Digital Culture program at WSU Vancouver, headed by Dene Grigar. The CMDC coordinates amazing learning opportunities for its students, and has had stellar results in terms of professional placements. (Much of this is directly due to Dene Grigar’s long-term energetic work building relationships with local tech companies, and listening to them to learn about what they need; and then doing a lot of work to configure learning opportunities that allow students to build skills, and advocating for the value and importance of the CMDC process.) I want to emphasize how much groundbreaking work has been involved, because the CMDC looks quite different from most humanities programs. By ‘groundbreaking’ I intend to convey both the quantity and difficulty of work involved in building something from the ground up. If you’re lucky enough to hear Dene speak about this work, don’t miss the chance.

Likewise, LeeAnn Hunter’s High Impact Practices: Passport Program in Washington State University’s Digital Technology and Culture program specifically focuses on bringing students’ studies and their personal lives together, rather than asking them to “leave it all at the door,” as she explains in the linked video. The Passport Program is one component of work that I’ve watched LeeAnn developing for years, through the quick glimpses afforded by social media.

The MLA Keywords in Digital Pedagogy series (curated by Rebecca Frost Davis, Matthew K. Gold, Katherine D. Harris, and Jentery Sayers), and specifically the #curateteach group (Amanda Licastro, Katina Rogers, Danica Savonick) writing about making collaboration work in the classroom are likewise making valuable contributions, and of course, Cathy Davidson herself has been a vocal advocate for transformative and innovative pedagogy who has influenced my own work in wonderful ways.

I’m sure, too, that there are more people and more programs whom I’m unaware of. I do not wish to diminish any of the above achievements when I say that these approaches do not appear to be widespread enough to support assertions that Google is anxious to hire humanities majors; especially the assertions that the reason that humanities majors make good Google team members is that they have acquired a particular set of soft skills in the course of their study.

The soft skills highlighted in Google’s Project Oxygen (2013) were: “being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.”

For Project Aristotle (2017), the top skills were: “equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying.”

At best, I would say that humanities subjects tacitly expose people to … well, some of these soft skills. It’s true that literature does sometimes involve people showing empathy, generosity, and curiosity to each other. So does history. But literature and history are also full of carelessness, cruelty, bullying, mismanagement, etc. I mean, good grief. Think of what people might learn from Jarndyce & Jarndyce in Bleak House.

Mere exposure to these bad qualities is not studying them, nor, thankfully, does it mean that readers will acquire these traits. Or that they will become somehow vaccinated against displaying them. And the same is true for positive traits. There is a substantial difference between seeing something in lit/history/art/theatre and developing and/or internalizing that quality in order to wield it within one’s life/profession.

How many humanities course outcomes have you seen that explicitly focus on gaining those skills? I will grant you that participation grades might touch on some of them, albeit obliquely, but I’m not convinced that they are usually presented as prioritized areas of learning. Instead, I think that participation grades and syllabus blurbs are usually presented as stuff that students already know how to do, so they’d better do it right, etc.

How many humanities course outcomes have you seen that explicitly focus on learning how to implement the above soft skills (particularly empathy, being a good coach, and generosity) in daily life? Any pics/documentation much appreciated. It’s not that I don’t think that this is happening anywhere in humanities departments — there are people and programs doing wonderful work around several of these areas in rhet/comp — which sadly, is often considered secondary to the parts of the department focusing on literary criticism.

I want to expand a little on the subject of what we do and don’t teach students to do in humanities courses. My undergrad majors were English, Classics, & Theatre, w/ a Creative Writing minor, but my PhD is in English, and my teaching experience is in literature and composition, so I’m mostly speaking from that particular experience. And my experience there is that the discipline actively discourages students from that sort of internalization/personalization. e.g. papers discussing how Wordsworth’s Lucy poems make the student think about their current boyfriend/girlfriend/partner differently are not considered valid arguments, in any sense.

What we teach people to do in English (and Classics, too) is how to read in order to develop arguments. Generally, we’re teaching them to develop arguments in written formats — rubrics and theory for assessing good oral format arguments or good digital format arguments are still emerging. I know that there are guidelines from the MLA and AHA, and they’re good starting points that are ripe for more exploration and discussion by local departments Teaching people to develop arguments is very different from teaching people to develop strategy and plans for action, project or product development, etc. We teach them how to develop interpretations, and defend them. We teach them many conventions of the discipline, as those conventions were taught to us.

I’m not always sure that those conventions are widely applicable and transferable without a lot of revision/adaptation. In fact, my experience has often been precisely the reverse. Here are a few examples:

Intentionally or not, I think we end up teaching students to value complexity over simplicity, often in the pursuit of being sufficiently original.

We teach them to chase after the perfect final draft (often blowing past deadlines to get to “perfect”), rather than the importance of ongoing iteration.

We teach them to value the BIG! NEW! things more than we teach them to look carefully at an existing situation, and use/reuse/build upon the things that have already been created.

I will grant that incorporating secondary sources into an argument is sort of like teaching students to build upon existing resources? But I think we present the skill of using secondary sources more for students to ‘make their argument good enough,’ rather than because we’re encouraging them not to reinvent the wheel, or because constantly bringing in an all-new way of doing things is at best highly dysfunctional and at worst fatally depleting to most organizations.

My experience as instructor, student, and TA among other TAs is that we teach humanities majors that what is at stake is whether their interpretation, their argument is valid. We teach them to prioritize whether they are individually seen as good enough — though in fact, this sort of insecurity/need to be the best is in most cases detrimental to working as part of a team where they may not be experts in anything at all, or may be one expert among many, all specializing in different components of a project.

Intentionally or not, what we teach them focuses on creating interpretations and/or an arguments — though interpretations and arguments alone aren’t very transferable to many professional contexts. I want to suggest, then, that instead of calling what we teach people to develop an interpretation or an argument, we call it “an idea.”

I have worked with many people who see their sole work as having an idea and then defending it as “the best idea” to everyone else. They mean well (sometimes), but they are incredibly time-consuming to manage, because they generally have zero experience executing/implementing/adapting ideas beyond telling someone else “you should do X.”

More specifically, they cannot break the idea down into manageable parts that can be implemented in sequence. They do not know how to anticipate and deal with constraints when they appear. And at worst, they think that their only responsibility is having an idea, rather than managing, developing, and iterating it until it becomes a reality. I want to be very clear indeed: the people who I have worked with who are ‘idea people’ are neither stupid nor lazy; just untrained and/or inexperienced and/or unfamiliar with contexts outside of the classroom or the research agenda. It is incredibly important to me to help these people adjust, and I have (and expect to continue) advocating for the importance of making space for me to train them effectively. The alternative is to expect that they somehow magically acquire this experience elsewhere, and I see that expectation as an abdication of my responsibility as an educator.

Idea people assume that someone else will deal w/ any problems.

Because we tend to put so much emphasis on whether an individual is good enough or smart enough, I think that we end up teaching humanities majors to reflexively think they have to do things alone, which can also create friction, just from inexperience. Sometimes this friction is minor (think skittishness around scheduling a quick 15-minute check-in meeting), but sometimes it’s not (think not asking for quick advance feedback from other colleagues, resulting in a derailed pitch). Good communication skills these are not. .

It’s a problem if we teach humanities majors (even indirectly) that the best thing is doing something independently, rather than doing it with other people. With this perspective in place, it’s much harder for them to adapt to the collaborative routines of being on a team. This doesn’t mean they don’t have great team potential, but I see no signs that humanities courses/majors, generally, are actively & collectively working to teach teamwork to students.For that matter, I think those of us in the humanities need to ask ourselves where our ideas and definitions of successful collaboration are coming from. Potentially, since we’re good at listening, we need to talk with engineers about their ideas of successful collaboration as well. I don’t think this means ‘listen and then adopt those ideas completely’ — there are plenty of examples of poor collaboration in the tech industry. But a real dialogue about how we see and value collaboration differently would be fascinating, and I hope it might be a bridge that would see both tech and academia learning from each other productively.

My point in all this isn’t to demean English majors at all, but I think that we gain nothing (and stand to harm our students, and our faculty, and our programs) by mythologizing the value and the substance of what we teach.

Another area I feel the need to push back on: despite looking around the web at Project Oxygen and Project Aristotle (and trying to dig into the mostly inaccessible data), I can’t find anything that suggests that the valuable soft skills were exhibited specifically by people with humanities backgrounds. I see that humanities folks are interpreting it that way, but I don’t see any sort of clear causation, or even a clear correlation. My experience as someone who develops arguments from looking at data has made me extremely hesitant about drawing conclusions in this instance. If I’m wrong here and someone can point me to the data, I would be most grateful.

As is, though I strongly object to the assumption that because these valued skills/qualities are present, they must be present in Google’s humanities-background employees, rather than in their students with STEM backgrounds. That stereotype is as retrograde as the shushing librarian or the head-in-clouds lit major who goes around drinking tea and sighing about poetry. To suggest otherwise is to define people’s skills in incredibly reductive and homogenous terms based on their majors’ course lists and … we simply must do better than that. And just as assuming that these traits aren’t organically associated with STEM subjects is problematic, it’s equally problematic to assume that they are organically associated with humanities subjects, for two reasons:

Reason 1: this assumption plays into narratives about how humanities profs/poets/writers/students/etc. would never ever ever exploit/harass/assault people, because equality & generosity & curiosity.

That’s rubbish. The women who’ve been brave in breaking the silence about Franco Moretti, Jay Fliegelman, etc. would beg to differ, and I’m standing with them.

Reason 2: this assumption reduces these skills from areas where expertise and mastery can be consciously learned to mysterious feminized qualities that can’t be taught, that some people “just have” and others “just don’t have.”

The result of this second assumption is to suggest that humanities majors are valuable to Google because they’re good at handling all the emotional and invisible labor that engineers drop on the floor. I really don’t think that that is a good outcome, no matter how you look at it. For engineers or humanities people. Another closely related assumption is that since these skills are mysterious and ephemeral, they can’t be taught — and thus, the expertise of people who can and do teach people how to do emotional and invisible labor gets handily swept out of sight.

We need to see more data before we can start making assertions about humanities training and how it prepares students for various jobs. I would especially love to see more data about where the people who are seen as having these skills feel like they originated. Google ethnographers and anthropologists, maybe you can help by showing us more of your data?

On a related note since I think that most of my readers here are involved with digital humanities/scholarship and humanities graduate programs, I feel like I’m still seeing a big emphasis on the importance of learning tech skills. I hope that any program administrators who see news about Project Aristotle and Project Oxygen pause to ask themselves how might we teach students to acquire these soft skills?

I absolutely think that humanities students can (and indeed, already are) doing valuable work in tech fields. I’m not convinced that it’s specifically because of the training that is part of their humanities major. Or that their humanities training is directly useful w/o being substantially reworked to fit into engineering contexts. There are a growing number of academic coaches, like Jennifer Polk of FromPhDtoLife and Jennifer Askey of Energized Academic who are specifically helping people from humanities academic background transition towards other sorts of work. If that reworking is happening, I would be really interested to know whether it’s happening in some sort of formal and directed way, or whether it’s occurring through more of a sink-or-swim process. I suspect the latter, & just as I would like to see humanities departments more proactively think about training students in these soft skills, I would also like to see engineering/tech companies more proactively think about how to teach them to engineers. Or, if engineering and tech firms particularly value the insights and skills that humanities people bring, then how they might provide onboarding & training that helps folks adapt their hum backgrounds to a tech context.

One final note: those 13 soft skills that Project Oxygen and Project Aristotle identified as valuable mostly fall into the categories of emotional or invisible labor. These are areas that are entangled in our histories of gender and racial bias, and as a result, it’s not just humanities departments and the tech industry who are struggling with how to see this labor, reward it, and train people to do it. I can’t think of a sector that isn’t facing this problem. So: when I say that humanities departments and programs aren’t teaching people these skills in a widespread fashion, I don’t mean it as a sharp indictment of any sort. Lots of groups need to improve in this area, including libraries. And there are people, in departments, libraries, and other organizations who are energetically interested in developing strategies and processes that allow faculty, staff, and students to begin learning new skills and adapt to the changing circumstances that we face. In many of the conversations I hear and am involved in about these sorts of transitions, there is open awareness of the fact that there are few (often zero) resources with which to make these changes, and that faculty and graduate students are already massively overstretched.

However: to say that our departments are already preparing humanities students for tech work is to pretend that those of us who are teaching those students (in departments and in libraries) don’t need to “communicate and listen well,” “make connections across complex ideas,” or “show curiosity towards the ideas of your teammates” (or of others with whom you’re engaging). It suggests that we don’t need people who are expert knowledge translators, or bridge builders. Though not mentioned in either two studies explicitly, these are much needed roles that I think that humanities, social sciences, and STEM students could excel at, if we help them learn how. Pretending this work doesn’t have to happen doesn’t make it go away. It just makes it harder for the people who are responsible for doing it.

Humanities majors and tech training - December 28, 2017 - Paige Morgan