If The Humanities Want More Respect, They Need to Get Tougher

If The Humanities Want More Respect, They Need to Get Tougher

Techie–fuzzy arguments at Stanford often take the form of arguments over who has more work. “This is actually so hard” reads a post on the Stanford Memes for Edgy Trees page, captioned with the words, “when a stem has to write a 2 page paper [sic].” Another meme-ster countered with an image of a despairing child, labeled “humanities majors,” underneath the words “Professor: ‘code one recursion.’”

Essays, obviously, are not intrinsically more or less difficult than problem sets. But no less obvious is the fact that while the average STEM class assigns, more or less, a problem set per week, the average humanities class assigns one, two, or maybe three papers over a ten-week quarter. The high volume of reading assigned in many humanities classes may, to a degree, offset this differential; but many humanities classes substitute a sit-down final with a final paper on a topic of your choosing. This creates a situation where there is essentially no penalty for not doing the bulk of the reading. What’s more, humanities majors consist of far fewer units than STEM majors. Philosophy is 55; mechanical engineering is around 120.

So what if humanities students do less work? It’s true that less work does not necessarily mean the humanities disciplines themselves are less rigorous, even if that is a common assumption among STEM students. But the real casualty of Stanford’s easy humanities classes is not the reputation of the liberal arts — it is the chance for humanities students to study their disciplines more deeply and rigorously.

I’d long suspected this was the case, but while studying abroad at Oxford, I found evidence to support my claim. In my tutorial on nineteenth-century political philosophy, I had to read over three hundred pages and write an eight-page paper each week. For the first (and thus far the only) time, I worked as hard as I see my STEM peers working, spending the bulk of every day in the library or in one of Oxford’s coffee shops, poring over Hegel or Tocqueville. The demands there were much higher than all but the most rigorous humanities classes here, and as I worked to meet them, I achieved a deeper understanding of the material than I did in most of my Stanford classes. This is common sense: demand more of your students and they will perform better.

Students and faculty are both to blame for the lack of rigor from which many humanities classes at Stanford suffer. Humanities students cynically take advantage of the trust professors place in them to do readings they will not be directly assessed on. They bloviate in seminars about texts they only SparkNoted. They trust the equal sloth of their peers to protect them from being punished with a bad grade. But professors also share the blame. On Carta, I found one English class with a reported 100% proportion of straight A grades. This is no policy for encouraging hard work or achievement among students.

Perhaps fearing they will deter students from their classes with onerous work, their enrollment numbers already dropping at the hands of the CS juggernaut, some professors seek to bolster their attendance by dropping standards of academic rigor. But what a Faustian bargain this is! Consider the frustration of the student who does all twenty readings and pours hours into her final paper, when she finds out that her peer, who did three readings and cobbled together a final paper at the last minute, received the same grade she did! She will be discouraged from making an equally robust effort next time; her achievement and her love for doing the hard work of learning will diminish.

Many of the finest classes in the humanities reject this attitude of mediocrity. Professor Josiah Ober’s legendary class on Greek political philosophy assigns a weekly one-page single-spaced essay or “précis.” This forces students to actually do the readings and allows them to crystallize and extend their understanding of the texts. A history class I’m currently taking, “International Security in a Changing World,” similarly asks students to complete a reading log on each paper assigned. Both these courses are frequently over-enrolled, and are considered by discerning students as among the best courses in their respective disciplines.

Every humanities class should adopt a similar program of weekly summaries or short papers on readings. TA-ships should be expanded to help professors grade these papers. I would willingly resign my ability, as a History major, to go to EBF every Wednesday and spend my afternoons writing op-eds like this one, in exchange for a deeper understanding of my discipline. My fellow humanities students, if they take themselves seriously as students, should feel the same. Neither is this standard of academic engagement even particularly high. Oxford students write several eight-page papers each week; a weekly one-page paper for three or four classes would pale in comparison. And until the rigor of humanities classes at Stanford is strengthened, liberal-arts majors will continue to go largely unrecognized for their equal capacity for hard work and dedicated scholarship.

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