Humanities research is groundbreaking, life-changing… and ignored (The Guardian)

Humanities scholars are making strides in sectors from sustainability to robotics – why are so few people aware of their work?

Philosopher Don Howard worked with computer scientists on the ethics of ‘human-robot interaction’.

Philosopher Don Howard worked with computer scientists on the ethics of ‘human-robot interaction’. Photograph: Alamy

Deep in the corridors of Stanford University’s English department, graduate student Jodie Archer developed a computer model that can predict New York Times bestsellers. Her soon-to-be published research landed her a top job with Apple iBooks and may revolutionise the publishing industry. At the University of Notre Dame, philosopher Don Howard worked with a computer scientist to develop a code of ethics for “human-robot interaction” that could change the way Silicon Valley designs robots.

Both scholars share an academic background in humanities. And they join countless others working in fields such as technology, environmental sustainability and even infectious disease control.

But humanities is experiencing a crisis. Public support has dwindled. Enrolment in humanities majors is down and courses are disappearing from university curricula. A tightening job market means more humanities PhDs than ever are looking for – and not finding – jobs outside of academia.

In theory, our society cherishes the humanities – the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is even being celebrated with a ceremony at the White House. In its years, the NEH has awarded more than $5bn (£3.2m) in grants to promote innovative research and cultural projects, such as the development of a database to track the transatlantic slave trade and the preservation and publication of the Dead Sea scrolls.

Even so, congressional support for the humanities has plummeted along with federal, state and private funding. Adjusted for inflation, the current $146m budget for the NEH represents just half of its expenditure in 1980.

Part of the issue is an image problem around the impact of humanities research on the wider world. The public should know about Priscilla Wald, an English professor at Duke University, whose explanation of the “outbreak narrative” of contagion is changing the way scientists think about the spread of infectious diseases. They should know about environmental humanities professor Joni Adamson, who is applying the study of indigenous cultures to make desert cities into more sustainable ecosystems.

Most arguments for “saving” the humanities focus on the fact that employers prize the critical thinking and communication skills that undergraduate students develop. Although that may be true, such arguments highlight the value of classroom study, not the value of research.

But humanities research teaches us about the world beyond the classroom, and beyond a job. Humanities scholars explore ethical issues, and discover how the past informs the present and the future. Researchers delve into the discourses that construct gender, race, and class. We learn to decode the images that surround us; to understand and use the language necessary to navigate a complex and rapidly shifting world.

The academy itself is partly to blame for this image problem. The inward-focused nature of scholarship has left the public with no choice but to respond to our work with indifference and even disdain, because we have made little effort to demonstrate what purpose our work may have beyond the lecture hall or academic journal.

The traditional academic model does not reward public humanities scholarship. Rather, humanities scholars are saddled with the expectation of producing peer-reviewed articles and monographs published by university presses for tenure and promotion. This antiquated system encourages scholars to write and speak only for an audience of peers, keeping graduate students from branching away from the proto-book dissertation model and faculty from exploring popular venues for their work.

The potential applications of this type of research are endless – the examples above are the just the tip of the iceberg. And more employers need to see that such research has wide application outside of the academy. The American Council of Learned Societies Public Fellows programme is helping to facilitate this process by placing humanities PhDs in high-profile positions in government and non-profit organisations such as the US department of state, Amnesty International and the Human Rights Campaign.

Humanities scholars need to take what feels – right now – like a risk, and engage in more public scholarship. After all, we are the best qualified to talk about our own work. And we need our chairs, our deans and our provosts to afford us the support and incentives to do so.

The payoff will not only be in increased visibility and perceived value for humanities research, but the opportunity to make an impact that is much greater than that offered by the solitary scholar model.