Five Principles for Teaching Humanities Advocacy

by Abigail Droge
Published September 5, 2018

As I prepare to bring humanities advocacy into the classroom this year, I want to reflect on some initial guiding principles. I intend this list to be malleable – I hope it will grow and change as I move through the teaching process.

Let’s start with a definition. What is “humanities advocacy”? For me, the meaning is twofold. First, I want to be an advocate for the humanities myself and foster the practice of humanistic inquiry in my students. My training is in literary analysis, and I want my students to appreciate such study through our class discussions and assignments. The second step is more important: I want to prompt my students to become advocates for the humanities themselves once they leave my classroom. This necessitates giving them the tools to continue a humanistic mindset in whatever careers and communities they go on to encounter, and perhaps to show others the value of doing so as well. In the WE1S Summer Research Camp, the Outputs Team (of which I was a member) referred to such an advocacy structure as a “wave model” or “ripple effect.” We should imagine advocacy as a living process that can continue beyond our initial action. How can one advocate turn into many?

With this definition in mind, here are my working principles as I set out on the road of designing syllabi, planning assignments, and selecting readings:

1) Don’t talk “crisis.” The best way to ensure a swift death for the humanities is to keep predicting it. The measure of success for our work has traditionally been strongly correlated to the metric of majors: how many students in a given year pursue a degree from a humanities department. When this number dwindles in comparison to science and engineering fields, humanists despair. But there are copious other measures of success that would produce a picture of a thriving humanities, rather than one in crisis. I find the “majors” metric limiting and misleading (which I will elaborate in a future post!) and hope that my courses this year will prompt discussion about the many ways that humanities advocacy can be successful apart from the strictures of academic credentials.

2) Do talk infrastructure. Be transparent with students about the institutional frameworks in which we do our jobs – how departments are set up, how disciplines get formed, how college administrations apportion funding, which scholars don’t see eye-to-eye and why, how research and teaching are valued, who has access to educational systems and who doesn’t, etc. Students must understand their courses within a larger setting of educational policy and scholastic exchange. Academic subjects and cultural canons do not fall fully-formed from the sky and end up on a student’s schedule. Instead, they are the slow accretions of class politics, personal decisions, and economic forces; they represent man-made, socially-conditioned groupings of knowledge, rather than any objective “truth.” Knowing the history of a discipline can empower students to become actively involved in shaping its future.

3) Stop being special. The biggest mistake that a humanities advocate could make is to assume that such an advocate must be a humanist: a person, like themselves, who is willing to devote years upon years to the specialized study of literature, art, language, music, etc. Instead, we must learn to see the non-major as our greatest ally and the intro class, full of students who will go on to do something else, as our greatest opportunity. Advocacy happens outside of specialization: we need to enable the spread of humanistic thinking in settings that are not traditionally humanistic (like science classrooms, corporate boardrooms, political policy meetings, etc). Specialization is not inherently bad, but it becomes bad if it allows the humanities to happen in isolation and to remain unconnected from other disciplines and career paths. There are hundreds of positive outcomes that could result from a well-taught humanities class that do not hinge on winning a “convert” to a humanities major. And for students who do choose to specialize as humanists, we must give them the tools to expand and apply that specialization after graduation.

4) Start being undisciplined. Look for ways to play with the boundaries of your own academic discipline. This could mean assigning readings from another field and asking students to work through them in conversation with course texts from your home-discipline. It could mean looking for ways to export your discipline’s own insights into another context and asking students to consider such applications. Encourage interdisciplinary exchange. Prompt students to bring in points from classes they are taking simultaneously. Urge students to reflect on their own experiences with specialization. And ask meta questions about how disciplines are arranged and how they might be arranged differently.

5) Assign Advocacy. In order to enact the “wave model” that we discussed above, a practical outcome of each course should be an act of public humanities that reaches beyond the classroom. Such assignments could range in scale from very small first-week exercises to a final project. For instance, if you want your students to get better at framing the value of the humanities for their peers and families, ask them to come up with an “elevator pitch”: write out five two-sentence blurbs about why you are taking a humanities class, try them out on friends, and pick the one that works best. Or, if you want your class to think through the practical and theoretical issues at stake in making the humanities more public-facing, have them collaborate with a community partner like a local school, library, or non-profit, or ask them to host an open event like a salon, an exhibit, or a performance in lieu of a final exam. Teaching students how and why the humanities might be applied to a range of issues and settings, and working together through examples and models for doing so, can open their eyes to an exciting future of humanities advocacy.

The goal of the Curriculum Lab is to ensure a steady dialogue between research and teaching for the WhatEvery1Says project. For more information, see our webpage and this introductory blog post, and stay tuned for more Curriculum Lab posts throughout the year!