The Humanities

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Last week I competed, for the second time, in my university’s 3MT competition. If you’re not familiar with 3MT it stands for three-minute thesis and the idea is for student researchers to condense their masters or doctoral thesis into a three-minute presentation with a single, static slide. Now, I’m a fan of the competition for a variety of reasons. (In fact, a link to video of last year’s presentation is at the top of this page.) However, it is heavily biased towards the types of research that have discrete results. The ideal 3MT presentation goes like this:

  1. There was a problem known as “A.”
  2. The problem is important because of “B.”
  3. I solved the problem by doing “C.”

Presentations that do well in 3MT, and in the public eye more generally, follow this format. Individual presenters vary this formula with their best presentation skills whether that be humor, concision, or something else entirely.

This type of presentation does not, in general, work well for humanities scholars such as myself and I say this not as a jilted competitor but as a veteran public speaking teacher. In fact, the type of work I do is almost completely antithetical to the 3MT presentation which is why I feel comfortable talking about my own work as an example of why it’s difficult to convince people that the humanities are important. Here are three reasons why humanities research doesn’t fit the tripartite formula outlined above very well.

1: It’s not shiny. Or exciting. It’s often not very new. The humanities deal with age-old questions that mostly boil down to some version of “People can’t survive alone for very long and are everywhere so why is it so hard for them to live together?” My own presentation, drastically oversimplified, can be boiled down to the seemingly timeless question, “Why are women treated so unfairly when it comes to sex?” This is neither new nor exciting. It’s very old and kind of depressing. It is definitely not shiny.

Science and tech presentations are much more fun. Just borrowing from my own experience in 3MT the past couple of years I was up against presentations such as, “I made these cool robots work together to do things,” and, “I used an isotope to make cancer cells light up,” or, “I made a watch that can detect drug overdoses.”

This is new! This is exciting! In the case of the cancer cells, this is, literally, shiny!

2: It’s not discrete. In my own presentation on Tuesday I was talking about rhetoric that contributes to rape culture in contemporary U.S. history. This is an incredibly complex thing and I was not able to offer my audience a if-we-all-do-this-we-can-fix -it or a there-now-I’ve-fixed-it-for-you solution. I was able to offer a step in the right direction based on my research of a very narrow set of contributing factors to the problem.

For contrast, take the gentleman who developed the watch that detects signs of drug overdose in the physiology of its wearers. Drug addiction and overdose is also a hugely complex problem with many different factors from personal to social, local to global. However, his presentation did have that there-now-I’ve-fixed-it-for-you pay-off at the end because he was able to offer a solution to a concrete problem, the lack of detection of overdose symptoms, with a technological innovation. In other words, he was able to solve a discrete part of the problem.

3: It’s subjective. For instance, in my own presentation, I cited the statistic that over 80% of U.S. residents, when polled, say that they want their schools to teach comprehensive sex education over abstinence-only education. Now, I happen to live in a conservative state and work at one of the more conservative universities in that state. There’s a possibility that the majority of my audience was made up of that 20% of U.S. residents who prefer their schools to teach abstinence-only education. If that is the case, well, then, I didn’t exactly lose the audience because you can’t lose something you never had. One of my fellow presenters talked about what volcanoes and glaciers on Mars can tell us about climate change on earth. It’s not that this research isn’t political but rather that it’s political in a way that feels removed from the daily lives of the audience. Also, anything that happens in space is shiny, see point 1.

So, what are the humanities good for? Well, as much as I love the graphic at the top of the page there is a bit of a misnomer there. As a former physicist and a current rhetorician, I am not only picky about how people talk about things, I am very picky about how people talk about science. Science can tell you how to clone a dinosaur but, technically, science can also tell you why that would be a terrible idea. Off the top of my head, it seems like veterinarians, ecologists, and climatologists could all talk about why bringing back dinosaurs wouldn’t be a great idea from a scientific perspective. The value of the humanities isn’t solely that they can argue for should over can.

The value of the humanities lies in its ability to imagine new worlds. For example, let’s take another look at my colleague and competitor who presented his research on a watch that could track the signs of a drug overdose in its wearers. During his presentation he said the following (paraphrased because I do not have a perfect memory):

Now, I know you are thinking, “hold on, this sounds a lot like Big Brother,” but picture this: Your grandma wakes up and takes her morning pills. After a while, she takes a mid-morning nap. She wakes up a second time, forgets that she has already taken her medicine, and takes her morning pills again. Now she has accidentally overdosed but because her vital signs are being tracked an alert is sent to authorities that she needs help so ambulances are on their way.

You could feel the room turn from general discomfort with the idea of one’s drug intake being constantly monitored to approval for the idea of a device that would alert medical authorities when elderly patients may be in danger.

Yes, this technology could be put to beneficial uses and that’s what science can tell us. What the humanities offer is a broader, conceptual framework for how this technology is likely to be used and why. As a friend of mine who works for the state on social programs said, “Private prisons will love this. It’s a mess for them every time a prisoner overdoses so as soon as they get this technology they will slap it on every prisoner and then charge their families for the cost of the device and its maintenance all in the name of preventing overdoses.” This viewpoint is informed by an understanding of capitalism, neoliberalism, for-profit prisons, classism, and white-supremacy.  The humanities tell us that white supremacy means POC are more likely to be working-class than white people and that POC, whatever their class status, are more likely to be sentenced to prison terms for committing the same crimes as white folks. The humanities tell us that neoliberalism, one of capitalism’s more destructive offspring, mandates social services, like prisons, be privatized which then creates a monetary incentive for producing a steady flow of prisoners. These private prisons offload costs onto prisoners and their families as much as possible while collected profit from state contracts. Hence, the observation of my colleague earlier.

Another thing the humanities can tell us is that the beneficial uses of a piece of technology do not absolve the technology, or its creators, from the negative consequences of said technology–but that’s a post for another time or author.

If all of this sounds terribly depressing that’s because it is, but the truest and best part of the humanities is its ability to imagine another way of being.

For instance, we know that both people struggling with addiction and elderly people suffer from the devaluation of care work (we also know this work is devalued because it’s perceived as feminine and therefore less valuable in a patriarchal culture). What if we imagine a world in which care work is valued? This means several things but, for starters, it means that care workers are respected and paid a living wage while people who need care (note: this is everyone, sooner or later) would not be framed as weak or lacking. We could imagine a world in which healthcare was framed as preventing diseases rather than treating them, and in which human interaction was seen as a valuable component of a holistic treatment. In this world, it’s not so unrealistic to think that both the drug addict and the elderly woman mentioned in my colleague’s presentation wouldn’t need a wearable device to monitor their bodies response to drugs because they would have real, live people helping them face the challenges of addiction and aging.

I often hear people talk about how technology is apolitical as if this is (1) true and (2) a virtue. A polis is a group of people living together. Politics is all things grouped under how those people live together. Being apolitical is not inherently virtuous because a lot of being political is about trying to make people live together in better ways. Second, technology is almost always produced to help people live together which means it is inherently political; it is shaped by social, cultural, and political forces. The reasons technology often presents itself as apolitical is because it does not seek to challenge the existing systems that govern how people live together in the polis. What technology most often is, is complicit. What the humanities can do is teach you the difference between what it means to be apolitical, complicit, and when these things intersect.

Most importantly, however, the humanities can teach you how to dream a better world.

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