Humanities Nightmares

—Your college sophomore offspring casually drops some news on you…mom, dad, I’ve decided to major in Scandinavian literature…or was it Persian poetry? Or medieval history…???


—[FLASH!] A vivid image of money gushing from your pockets into a bottomless pit…

—[FLASH!] Image of your daughter as a 35 year old barista dragging herself home from work…to your house!

—[FLASH!] Image of your son as a greying gentleman in his 50s greeting customers at Wal-Mart…

You wake in a cold sweat…

This is the humanities nightmare.  It is the psychic distillation of fears shared by many parents embarking on the often-wildly-expensive adventure of putting a precious young adult through higher education.  It is also a nightmare parents subconsciously transmit to their children…Will he, will she (will I) make the right choices?  Will her major (will my major) prepare her (me) for making a life for herself (for myself) after the university? Will I have wasted all this money, be in debt forever?

These days, everybody seems to be in a panic: parents, students, humanities faculty, departments, and deans.  Enrollments in humanities courses are plummeting.  College and university administrators are feeling driven to strip funding from the humanities and bestow it upon science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).  The whole concept of a liberal education that informs students of the history, culture, languages, art, philosophy, religions that help us understand who we are, in what kind of a world, seems to be on the brink of catastrophic disintegration.

The problem with panic, as with nightmares, is that they are based in short-term, little-picture thinking coming more from fear than reality.   An illuminating book review article by J. M. Olejarz in the Harvard Business Review ( ) points out that, increasingly, creative big-picture thinkers in technology and business are coming to realize that the apparently rigid dichotomy between technology and the humanities is false and unproductive.  Businesses, even technology businesses, need to understand people as well as code.  The drift toward recreating the university as a STEM-based vocational school does not represent a safe path toward a successful future for either the university or its graduates.

So, what is the reality? 

The Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University of Washington has supported the development of an experimental project combining faculty research and undergraduate education, connecting work with primary source materials in the humanities and practical experience and training in digital technologies.  Newbook Digital Texts [NDT] is a virtual publishing house that, since (2012), has been bringing together 25-40 undergraduate interns a quarter from technology, business, and humanities majors to work on a foundational kind of humanities research.  As a result, there are questions to which we have experience-based answers.

What value do humanities students bring to the workplace?

The answer is—”considerable value”.  Our history students, for example, sift through substantial amounts of information, organize it, and make sense of it. In the process they learn how to infer what drives and motivates human behavior from elections to social movements to board rooms.  Increasingly, employers interested in recruiting future managers understand that historical thinking prepares one for leadership because history is about change — envisioning it, planning for it, making it last  Similarly they realize that literature is all about understanding communication, learning about how words have the power to connect and move people, while developing the capacity for empathy and emotional intuitiveness and intelligence—success often goes to whomever can articulate the most compelling narrative.

What value does the combination of digital technology and humanities expertise have for students?

In championing a team-based effort towards open source publication, we are shattering traditional models of academic research and publication in favor of accessible, no- or low-cost, web-based texts and technology.  The audience for this work is global. Our work aims to develop material that makes a difference in people’s lives, ranging from the scholars and students that use our digital tools and engage with our data, to lay people who are fascinated and illuminated by history, art, and literature.

The overarching theme in our Newbook work is to offer students education, training and research experience in a real-life team-based work environment.  Our student interns not only gain experience in grappling with primary texts but, in many cases, they participate in project marketing, grant writing, or working on our “tech team” (which students can join with no prior tech experience).

Over six years, we’ve worked with more than 100 University of Washington undergraduate interns and several graduate assistants.  Two graduate theses have been written based on our material, and our undergraduates have participated in a wide array of academic poster sessions and oral presentations at local and national symposia and conferences.   Our interns have been awarded Mary Gates and MacNair Scholarships, iSchool grants, travel grants, and departmental awards.

What is the bottom line?

We live in a digital world, and humanities students who also develop the skills to plan, develop and present their work in sustainable digital formats are well-placed for success.  We know this because we follow our interns after graduation and they are amazingly successful.  There are Newbook graduates working in most of the major technology firms in the Seattle area and in start-ups world-wide.  Our humanities graduates have also gone on to graduate schools and careers in business and public service. Some interns graduated with humanities majors or double majors, some moved from humanities to technology majors, some from technology majors to humanities.  They keep in touch, visit us when they are in town and are generous in praising their experiences with us.

We have also become a proven pathway for women interested in moving into technology fields.  Since 2014, nearly 75 percent of our interns have been women and well more than half of these are either women who come in with technology interests or develop them while they are working with us.

What does the future of Newbook look like?Where do we go from here?

We now find ourselves at a point where we must vigorously pursue strategies to sustain our work in the longer term. The humanities are under assault and the response is tending toward defending, hunkering down, and cutting back, when the focus should be on major systemic change, positive disruption, new horizons, adapting to the “future in the present”.

Humanities leadership looks at the numbers and sees failure—declining enrollments, loss of resources, lack of interest on the part of the public and politicians, student anxiety about future employment, and the vogue for STEM fields.

Meanwhile, Newbook is flourishing. Our students are successful, and they find working with us rewarding and profitable.  Our interns even come back to work with us after graduation.

But…Newbook is flourishing but it has NO sustained funding.  This situation will ultimately be fatal to the project.  Meanwhile, it restricts what we can do to help other humanities programs adopt our model.  Other departments and programs are interested but simply cannot help.  It prevents us and the university from serving a larger group of students.

The UW has recognized the value of the Newbook model, connecting academics with future careers. Our projects have been highlighted in numerous UW features and reports, most recently in this summer’s the College of Arts and Science Newsletter.

There is currently no formal digital humanities program at the University of Washington, which would offer a structured pathway for a significant number of students to foster computing skills while pursuing humanities majors.  Many other universities – including the University of the Central Andes!—have embraced this model, and developed active, funded DH centers and student programs. The UW has yet to do this.  We even send interested UW faculty and grad students to Canada for digital humanities training.

Yes, the humanities are broke.  Yes, the university does need to meet the student demand for STEM courses.    But here, in the flagship university in a national and world-wide hub of the technology industry, a successful digital humanities experiment is dying for lack of support and this simply makes no sense.

This experiment, thus far staffed by unpaid volunteers, is implementing a new paradigm in experiential undergraduate education combining faculty research and teaching, training in digital technologies, and humanities learning.   Newbook and projects like it can initiate systemic change in humanities education. The Newbook paradigm can make humanities nightmares a thing of the past.

M. Olejarz, Asst. Editor Harvard Business Review