James Rovira: An Instructor’s Ground-Level Defense of the Humanities to Students

James Rovira is an Assistant Professor of English at Tiffin University in Ohio. The following is a slightly revised version of a post he made to the Humanist list on October 29, 2010.

[Excerpt] I currently teach in a university in which 90% of its students are either Business or Criminal Justice majors. I don’t need to say that the majority of the students coming in to my literature courses believe that these courses are useless and that faculty in the dominant schools only reinforce this opinion. Every day teaching is a hard sell of humanities study to a largely hostile audience – not personally hostile to me, but generally hostile to having to be in a literature class, and God help us all if I’m teaching a poetry class, which is the most useless of all useless subjects.

My response has been to ask students to explore their expectations for their education.

[Full letter:]

I currently teach in a university in which 90% of its students are either Business or Criminal Justice majors. I don’t need to say that the majority of the students coming in to my literature courses believe that these courses are useless and that faculty in the dominant schools only reinforce this opinion. Every day teaching is a hard sell of humanities study to a largely hostile audience – not personally hostile to me, but generally hostile to having to be in a literature class, and God help us all if I’m teaching a poetry class, which is the most useless of all useless subjects.

My response has been to ask students to explore their expectations for their education. As I’m sure you all know, most students tend to think of education in terms of vocational training: you are taught to do a job in school, and when you graduate, you go out and do that job. One response on my end is a “Consider the Cow” lecture. I ask my students to meditate on a cow: it gets up, surveys the field, decides the fence is a bit too far and the grass right where it is standing is just fine, then it eats, defecates, sleeps, and never goes beyond the boundaries set for it until it is slaughtered by its owners for profit or slaughtered because it is too old to milk. I ask my students to consider the possibility – a very remote possibility, mind you – that they are better than cows. That there is more to their lives than the jobs that they’re going to do every morning, and that their education can also help them with the rest of their lives. Vocational training will not teach anyone how their spouse feels or what their children think and why. But humanities study just might. That is my defense of content. It worked well enough that students brought me photographs of cows the following semester to use in my repeat of the lecture.

My next advocacy for the humanities is to lead my students to understand humanities study not just in terms of content but also in terms of skills development. I tell my students that their most sophisticated reading will probably be in their literature classes (we don’t offer much by way of philosophy). It will not be sophisticated because of its complexity of vocabulary – as these types of texts are found in all disciplines – but because literary texts communicate thought, action, and feeling at once. Because literature is sometimes deliberately ambiguous, and sometimes the ambiguity is the point. And in being this way, it is the most like life: cryptic, ambiguous, and sometimes nonsensical. To learn how to read literature is to learn how to read life and the people that you encounter along the way. Furthermore, it is simply to learn how to read, and by learning how to read, to learn how to write.

I ask my students if they can recall hearing someone speak and thinking that they were stupid (yes, a very dangerous question for anyone in a public speaking context to ask). Then I ask them if they themselves want to sound stupid in their speaking or in their writing. And then, yes, I intimate to them that sometimes they too can sound rather stupid (I usually have a good relationship with my students and take as well as I give). I suggest to them that reading literature and writing about it develops reading and writing skills that they can carry into every job, as well as content knowledge that they can take with them into every human interaction.

These skills are clearly not useless – in fact, they are absolutely necessary – but neither are they easily quantifiable in terms of product sales or visible output. At this point I ask my students to perform one more task: to consider the difference between an external product and a developed skill. The first is an investment in another person’s resources. The latter is an investment in themselves.

Why wouldn’t they want to make it?

6 thoughts on “James Rovira: An Instructor’s Ground-Level Defense of the Humanities to Students

  1. Thank you for this post. What it underscores for me is that the classroom (in all of its forms) is one of the best opportunities for advocacy that the humanities currently has. By this I don’t mean only these kinds of explicit statements of value, but the cumulation of effective practices of teaching and learning that go on throughout the entire semester. These students will vote, consume, and help shape future decisions about the allocation of resources in a range of ways. I hope to see more thought on this site to effective teaching as a form of advocacy.

  2. Jim, thank you for sharing your insight on this important topic. As a veteran of the Humanities classroom I understand the need for this discussion. I am especially pleased you include reading and writing as essential skills developed through Humanities classes. I would add critical thinking skill to the mix, especially the ability to draw valid conclusions from data and then to be able to use that data to support those conclusions in speaking or writing. (I see I just defined what true education is, and it happens in the Humanities classroom!)
    Best regards. Oscar

    1. Dear James,
      Very interesing indeed, I loved your analogy with the cow. I have been teaching literature to under-graduate hospitality students in Switzerland, and was constantly asked the same questions as you were. By showing that works of literature were (and still are) written by ‘normal’ people, and explore the complexity of human nature, perhaps the students did realise that they had learnt something … After the first semester of teaching, and striving like hell to make it interesting to the students, I realised that my classes were fully booked … which, I guess, meant I was doing something right.

      You are spot on, when you mention reading and writing, and Oscar, I also agree with you to include critical thinking skills. Some students will realise the value of the humanities, but the vast percentage will perhaps only see how valuable and ‘life orientating’ the humanities are after graduating, and working in the big bad world.
      Cheers,
      Rachel

  3. Bruxelles, le 13 mai 2013
    Dear James,
    for my own easiness, I’ll answer you in French. A good exercise for you.
    J’ai été professeur de litterature en dernière année de secondaire plusieurs années. Parfois j’avais eu l’impression de devoir donner à manger à des jeunes qui n’avaient pas faim. Mais malgré les apparences, ils ont quelque appétit qu’il faut “éveiller”. Commre l’a écrit Rachel, cela demande de travailler dur pour susciter l’intérêt et je ne crois pas qu’une attitude méprisante y contribue. Courage donc, courage et tiens bon avec enthousiasme.
    If too difficult to understand, I am ready to translate!

Leave a Reply to Laura Rosenthal Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.