The Work Humanists Do: An Interview with 4Hum’s New International Correspondent

photo of Lauren H GriffinBy: Ashley Champagne

Lauren Horn Griffin is 4Humanities.org’s new International Correspondent! She will write on humanities advocacy projects, humanities issues, the relation of the humanities to society, and specific humanities initiatives. Lauren is currently working as the Communications Coordinator for the nonprofit Institute for Diversity and City Life while she finishes her Ph.D., and she is a passionate advocate for the humanities. I caught up with her in Santa Barbara for a chat over coffee to see why the humanities are important to her.

Hi, Lauren! You’re a Ph.D. candidate in the humanities with research interests in the history of Christianity, Early Modern Catholicism, and the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe, and soon to be a newly minted Ph.D.! Why are the humanities important to you?

Humanities disciplines allow us to truly examine human culture from a variety of perspectives. The world is muddled and complex, which can be frustrating when trying to analyze a situation and decide how to act, but humanists know that this complexity and uncertainty doesn’t have to be paralyzing— it can be a rich space for inquiry and exploration. A lot of undergraduates realize when they are writing essays for humanities courses that there are no singular, clear answers to many questions related to studies in human culture. The work humanists do requires critical thinking about these questions, thus the work is often speculative, immeasurable, and ever evolving. So, necessarily, this kind of work involves a constant rethinking of our assumptions, opinions, categories, stereotypes, prejudices, use of language, and the list goes on—its about demystifying and questioning what we often take for granted. The skills need to work through complex questions are invaluable because they help us consider the cultural fabric of our world; they help us understand other people. The very foundation of humanities disciplines is this critical investigation of human culture.

In many ways, I was uncomfortable with the “muddy” aspect of the humanities for a long time. In high school and even through part of my undergraduate experience, getting the “right” answer—like I could in math and sometimes science—motivated me. The humanities aren’t about getting an answer, so much as they are about posing questions, so I did not initially feel the same satisfaction that I found in math and the sciences. But really it was through my own discomfort with this aspect of humanities disciplines that I realized why they are so crucial.

Do the undergraduates you teach ask for guidance on the post-college life? How do you mentor them for jobs and life?

Humanities degrees are not professional degrees, so I know I am not preparing my majors for a specific job—this is not a bad thing. The humanities do important work in that they get us to explore questions of ethics and values, they nurture emotional intelligence, and they make us better, more informed citizens.

These are, of course, very important, but we can also see how the humanities teach valuable, marketable skills that prepare students for a variety of fields in the work force: we teach critical thinking and analytical skills as well as communications and interpersonal skills. I think as we prepare students to enter the work force, we need to do a better job of explicitly naming and marketing these skills, explaining how our specific courses have helped them hone them. I’ve written about this in the hopes to challenge ideas that humanities degrees do not prepare students for jobs. My forthcoming article on classroom assignments and marketable skills will appear in Perspectives on History this fall. The skills I focus on in this article are contextualizing primary sources (Who was this produced by and why? Who is the audience? What is going on in the world at the time?) and then employing that information as evidence in composing an original argument. If you think about everyday activities like reading the news, these specific analytical skills make us thoughtful and critical. This is a real, marketable talent that employers are interested in. So my article focuses on how to help students hone those skills, how to explicitly measure and evaluate it, and how to market that skill to outsiders. Thinking about both content and skills in humanities courses can help us not only appreciate the beauty of human culture, but also improve the skills that are necessary for work outside the academy.

Congrats on the article! Since your specialty is religion and culture, I have to ask why you think studying that field particularly is important.

Of course people will point out or recognize that religion plays a central a role in social, political, and economic events, as well as in the lives of communities and individuals; thus there is a need for ongoing reflection and an understanding of religious traditions, issues, questions, and values. But one really important aspect of studying religion is understanding the way we’ve constructed the category ourselves. As opposed to seeing religion as sometimes interacting with other aspects of culture, the beliefs, practices, and institutions called “religious” make up an aspect of cultural practices that we often group together. What we have categorized as “religious” is at the heart of so much of human behavior. As we study both history and contemporary culture, we need to think critically about how we talk about, think about, and treat “religion.” It is worthwhile to study religion’s role in economic activity, or to consider the way it works to bind societies or groups. But I also want to encourage a meta-discourse on religion as a constructed category, and push my students to think about what that really means. We can’t make generalizations about the aspects of culture we call “religious.”

In addition, the courses I teach that focus on the history of Christianity gives students the opportunity not only to understand the historical background and development of the tradition, which is crucial to understanding where we are today, but also allows us to tackle hot-button issues with a little bit of removal from our current situation. This allows students to draw historical analogies and consider the context of various types of questions and issues that arise when thinking about religion in culture and society.

What’s a specific example where pushing a meta-discourse of religion would be important?

Every time something goes to the Supreme Court and we have to decide what is religious or not, it’s really difficult because there is no official definition that fits with our informal conception of “religious.” Any definition that we can try to offer is going to have slants and biases because no definition can capture all the features of all traditions, which inevitably excludes some. This is important when it comes to public policy as well as shaping cultural biases, which in turn affects individual prejudices and so on. This comes out in questions like, “should a Satanist group get tax benefits like other ‘churches’?” “Can public schools sponsor “religious” groups on campus?” What would that mean?

My job is to translate the academic language we use to deconstruct this stuff to the broader public so that they can also participate in conversations about how we talk about religion, and how that talk results in certain policies, categories, groups, and other aspects that shape our world.

Interesting. I can see how language would be really important to dissect, particularly as it relates to actual legal systems and public policy. What’s your take on the role of “religious” texts?

So most people might look at something like the Bible and think “the sacred book of Christians” and then evaluate if it is true or not true. Our job as religionists, though, is to ask critical questions like “Who wrote it? Why? Who was the audience? What were the social circumstances that motivated it? Why do some people find it authoritative while others do not? Who benefits from the book being seen as sacred? Who does not?” This allows us to complicate something we took for granted, which helps us take a more sophisticated look at what’s going on with them.

We can also look at contemporary arguments over these texts and deconstruct those based on the same questions. For example, Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American writer and scholar of religions, has recently discussed religion and violence by arguing that the violence we see in certain parts of the world has nothing to do with the substance of the beliefs and practices of the people; instead, he says, it is all about a construction of “religious identity” that has almost nothing to do scripture or sacred texts. Religions, he seems to argue, are not violent or nonviolent—the social conditions in which they operate are. Thus practitioners have read whatever they wanted into sacred texts at various times and places— we have seen how Americans have used the Bible for both pro and anti slavery arguments, for instance. So, for me and my students, as religionists examining his argument about religious texts, we ask ourselves how he uses the term “religion” and how he defines it implicitly. Aslan reduces belief, practice, text, ritual to social conditions and circumstances, giving them no substance or agency. These social conditions made these people do violence and this is merely reflected in their ideas of religious ideas. In this way his definition is materialist and reductive. This is an interesting argument for religionists to break down.

He is arguing against people, on the other hand, who say that the Qur’an and Islam are inherently violent. What is going on in that definition? In these discursive moves, people are making normative claims about Islam, constructing a very specific definition of it that does not represent it in reality. These are the types of constructions and definitions we try to analyze. We are not making judgments about any one religion or religion in general– we are instead taking a “meta” look at how we as a society talk abut, think about, and treat religion in our discourse.

 What fields would be better served by hiring students who have experience in religion and culture? I have been following the conversations about various fields trying to revamp their requirements to lure humanities majors. For example, a top medical school in New York is trying to attract English majors and several news outlets have talked about the need for liberal arts majors in the fields of technology. There are so many fields that are served well by the humanities. How would your particular students do in different positions?

I’ve noticed those articles too! In specific professional fields like medicine, people are looking for doctors who are trained to think critically and speculatively, rather than only being able to master technical skills. It takes a combination of the two. They need someone who has memorized the technical knowledge, but who can also look at a situation with fresh eyes (like on the TV show House). And these medical schools realize that humanities degrees are designed to foster that. So there is no field that would not be better served by students who have a foundation in the humanities. For religion and cultural studies particularly, I think government jobs would be lucky to have someone with a background and degree in this field. From public advocacy groups to local or national preservation societies to think tanks. Lots of students also work with nonprofits/NGOs—these fields are all looking for someone in religion and cultural studies. Many students also go into teaching, library sciences, journalism, and politics, but these are not the only options for religious studies majors.

There has been a lot of buzz lately about humanities degrees leading to social media marketing or consulting. They hire these graduates because they can read complicated information and rewrite it to make it clear and coherent. They can think critically about social media. They can analyze human culture—figure out what people need and how to make people aware of that need. This is marketing.

So much has been written on how the humanities need to train their students more for a diverse job market (at both the undergraduate and graduate level). Where do you see the humanities thriving in the job-related skills it teaches, and how do you think the humanities needs to change for the challenges of the twenty-first century?

The humanities are thriving in the ways we’ve just been discussing. While our disciplines consider human culture broadly, our courses assignments hone specific skills that allow us to participate in these sophisticated inquiries. I was recently reading an op-ed by Frank Bruni of the New York Times called “Plato and the Promise of College” that provided a little narrative on how one Columbia professor taught his students to “meta-think” about what it means to be a political agent. The article talks about a summer program that intends to get students ready for higher education with a literary diet of Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. What I saw emerging through this discussion was that these students were not only encountering philosophers and ideas but also learning to construct an argument, how to marshal evidence, how to engage with primary sources. These students won’t necessarily use Plato’s idea of “the good” in the work force, but they now can read difficult texts and develop a point of view and an argument. We, as professors, can get caught up in focusing on the content or course materials we choose when designing a course, but when we state clear learning objectives that point out the specific skills we are trying to teach we can better design our activities, assignments, and final projects to hone, evaluate, and showcase the skills students need for a diverse job market. We haven’t done a good job of communicating why we do what we do. We need to demystify the process and to the general public.

I also think that incorporating more learning technologies in our courses are vital to preparing our students for the twenty-first century. In addition to research that shows that technology helps reach a variety of types of learners, the world – jobs—necessarily involve technology. The humanities need to teach students computer skills in addition to our fundamental curriculum, and these skills will enhance our courses as well– digital document archiving, web page design, blogging, social networking – these are all things we can incorporate into courses. These are the skills students need to know to be competitive. I have started using a class blog for student writing assignments, because not only have I found that public, interactive writing improves their communication and composition skills, but the ability to create/join a blog and to understand the protocols of the genre are increasingly important skills. Teaching students how to operate in these types of networks is part of preparing them for the twenty-first century.

I agree. So many people have assumptions and preconceptions about what the humanities do and teach, and that’s likely to happen when we do not clearly explain and advocate for the work we do. We need to make visible the valuable humanistic work that often escapes the public eye. Thanks so much for talking with me, Lauren!

 

Ashley Champagne is a Ph.D. Candidate at University of California, Santa Barbara and the Lead Research Assistant for 4Humanities.org. 

 

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