University News

Humanities departments tout practicality

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011

Though faculty members said they are not concerned about the level of student interest in the humanities, University data show Brown is not immune to the decades-long nationwide decline in the proportion of bachelor’s degrees granted in the humanities.

While the number of humanities concentrations declined by 12 percent between 2009 and 2010, a longer-term look at the numbers tells a less dramatic tale. For the first half of the decade, between 2001 and 2005, students completed an average of 466 humanities concentrations per year. The average over the next five years was 452, a 3 percent decline. The average total number of concentrations completed was constant between the two periods.

The University’s Office of Institutional Research includes 29 concentrations in the humanities category.

From classroom to boardroom

Though students may be apprehensive about the employment consequences of a humanities-based education, humanities departments have begun stressing the practical applications of a liberal arts education.

“A liberal arts education prepares a person to live in this world. To think, write, read and critically evaluate … is exceptionally valuable,” said Gale Nelson AM’88, assistant director of the literary arts program and the concentration adviser for the literary arts program.

In September 2007, the English department conducted a survey to find out what careers alums who had concentrated in English were pursuing. The results were then posted on the department website.

The survey was “a way of answering a question often posed in many departments — ‘What am I going to do with X major?'” said Coppelia Kahn, professor of English. “The answer is really ‘anything you want.'”

Several departments and universities have conducted similar studies in recent years, Kahn said.

“It definitely made me feel more confident,” said Yuli Zhu ’12, an English and neuroscience concentrator. She said she felt reassured seeing that English concentrators had gone on to careers in science and medicine.

“I think there is a practicality in anything you choose to major in — it’s up to the individual to find what that is,” she said .

Last semester, the comparative literature department also posted information on its website showcasing past concentrators and their career paths. The project was not intended to attract more concentrators, but instead to inform current ones, said Stephanie Merrim, professor of comparative literature and the department’s primary concentration adviser. The project was in part a response to a November 2010 Herald editorial suggesting that all departments follow the English department’s lead and provide first-hand accounts from past concentrators.

“I’m not particularly worried because our concentration is robust this year,” Merrim said. “It’s a very Brown kind of concentration, with a lot of latitude. … It prepares you well for the economic times because it prepares you broadly.”

To illustrate the practical applications of a literary arts degree, the literary arts program also holds panels on small press publishing, Nelson said. Many students who concentrate in literary arts take on second concentrations or take clusters of classes in other areas, he said. Concentrators then go on to graduate school for related study or go into publishing and writing, he said, adding that one recent alum is now a writer for the New York Times.

“Brown attracts the type of student who resists equating what they’re studying to a job,” said Joseph Pucci, associate professor of classics and the department’s concentration adviser. “That doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about it, but there doesn’t always have to be a correlation.”

He said that the majority of classics concentrators go to medical school, law school or graduate school after graduation, though some get jobs in finance, teaching and even airline piloting or comedy writing.

“There are some students that are hesitant, and almost always it is a discussion driven by their parents,” Pucci said, adding that he advises students to take classics as a second concentration if they are concerned about career paths.

For love or money

Natan Last ’12, who creates crosswords for The Herald, said he decided to concentrate in economics in addition to literary arts, to “pragmatically pad (his) resume” and to “learn something useful and appear hirable.”

“I asked my friends, ‘If money wasn’t an issue, what would you major in?’ and many said, ‘History,'” he said. “But the hard truth is it’s not going to get you a job.”

Last said students should take advantage of the curriculum and concentrate in something practical while also taking interesting classes in other areas.

“If you decide your concentration early on, there is a lot of room to try new things,” he said.

Last is not the only student hedging his bets by double-concentrating.

“I love English so much, but I wasn’t sure what a career in that meant. Becoming a professor or writing books seemed scary and tentative,” said Catherine McMarthy ’12, who is pursuing a double degree in English and psychology. She added that many of her friends in the humanities took up second concentrations in subjects like economics and were interested in finding financial internships for the summer. The number of economics concentrators has nearly doubled since 2001, from 96 to 180.

“It’s far more important to take demanding subjects,” said Mary Gluck, professor of history and a concentration adviser. The University categorizes history as a social science. Some other schools, such as Yale, consider it part of the humanities.

Gluck said she recognizes career anxiety on campus, but feels that a liberal education and the “intellectual perspective” it provides are invaluable for any career.

Despite career anxieties, many students recognize the value of concentrations in the humanities.

“You’re going to be best at doing what you’re most passionate about,” said Jacob Combs ’11, leader of the English DUG. “There’s so much of life you can’t measure in disposable income.”

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