Town Hall Gets to the Heart of Humanities at CMU

A recent gathering in Carnegie Mellon University’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences drew about 100 faculty, staff and students to discuss the state of the humanities and how to create a stronger sense of community within the field.

"On the national stage, the situation for the humanities is a little frightening," said Dietrich College Dean Richard Scheines in his opening remarks at the Town Hall on the Humanities.

"But here we really have an opportunity to collectively discuss what are the strategies we should take as an elite higher education institution that is known for technology and arts as much as anything, to make the humanities thrive at Carnegie Mellon," Scheines added.

He cited several indicators that interest in the humanities at CMU is strong - and growing. Scheines noted the number of admitted students for fall 2019 who expressed interest in one of the Dietrich College’s four humanities departments went up nearly 33 percent over the previous year.

Department heads from , Modern Languages , History and Philosophy provided brief overviews of recent accomplishments and initiatives.

Emma Flickinger, a senior creative writing and professional writing major, delivered a student reflection. Her November 2018 editorial in The Tartan titled " Humanities fall by the wayside at CMU " precipitated the town hall.

Flickinger and some fellow students and faculty attending the town hall noted a flippancy toward the humanities’ academic rigor from some peers at Carnegie Mellon.

"It can be kind of demotivating when there is something you want to devote yourself to studying for the rest of your life, and in your class the other students see it as like a fun extra; like rainbow sprinkles or something," Flickinger said. "Students in the humanities, we deserve to be proud of our work and the work of our peers."

Attendees broke out into working groups to pose questions and offer solutions to issues facing the humanities at CMU. One of the common themes that emerged was a need to build a better sense of community within the college and departments.

Flickinger said that because many core university course requirements are humanities classes, in many Dietrich College classes "there are often fewer humanities students than there are students from other colleges who are just trying to fulfill their requirements."

Other students suggested creating courses - or sections of courses - specifically for humanities majors that would allow students to develop cohorts similar to majors in other colleges.

Scheines acknowledged the need for a greater sense of community throughout the college.

"Students in the humanities and the faculty sometimes can feel that they are lost in a sea of STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] at Carnegie Mellon," he said. "Students and faculty can feel that there’s not quite an identifiable community for us to attach ourselves to. But your coming out today is a bit of contrary evidence to that."

Attendees also suggested the college offer more common spaces for students to gather to complete work and socialize. Scheines noted the college is identifying areas to create these types of spaces as Baker Hall renovations are planned over the next several years. He invited students to provide input on the types of spaces they’d like to create and utilize.

Another issue, brought up by English Department Head Andreea Ritivoi, is the perception that STEM disciplines - not humanities - are the best academic path to take for a lucrative career.

"That story gets told very simplistically, and people don’t look at earnings over time," Ritivoi said. "When you do, you see that humanities graduates, because of humanities’ skills, have significant increases in earning over time."

She also pointed out that the so-called "soft skills" of critical thinking, creative writing and communications are seeing a renaissance in the job market.

"Much to our delight, what people call ’soft’ skills are now in very high demand," Ritivoi added. "For example, people are increasingly realizing that communication is a tough challenge and it’s not a simple skill. Therefore, it cannot be acquired quickly or easily and just by taking a writing class."

Scheines agreed.

"When people come to think about college, they’re very anxious about jobs," he said. "And they don’t perceive that the humanities are the right way to get yourself a job, which is a huge error."

"We all know, and people from all the colleges know, that students who are well trained technically, but narrowly, are going to lose in the job market to those who can think, who can do research and most importantly who can communicate," he added.

As the town hall drew to a close, Scheines encouraged attendees to continue sharing critiques and ideas to help improve the college. But he was adamant that the humanities are well-respected and well-supported by leadership across the university - politically and practically.

"We all agree in the upper administration that in order to educate a whole person, who can do more than just go to work and do a job, but can actually fill in the gaps as well, and to educate people to be citizens, we really need the insights and the education that are provided by the humanities," Scheines said.