Professors, students defend value of studying the humanities

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Growing concerns about the state of the humanities both at McGill and in academia were the topics of a roundtable discussion called “McGill for Humanities” on April 1.

Hosted by the Department of English Student Association (DESA), the event was one in a series of four organized by English professor Maggie Kilgour in response to recent budget cuts to the Faculty of Arts, as well as a widespread perception that humanities offer little practical value for students.

“There’s been so much talk recently about the crisis in the humanities [….] and a sense that they’re under the gun,” Kilgour said. “I thought it would be important for us to have this discussion because it’s something that’s affecting us and something everyone’s aware of, and rather than just brooding about it in silence, to talk about it.”

The event featured a discussion panel comprised of Arts students and faculty members from a wide range of departments. Their discussion centred on the notion of a perceived crisis in humanities education; panellists responded to those claims and asserted the value of the discipline.

“Especially now, students are feeling the pressure of ‘Why aren’t you studying something that will get you a job?’” Kilgour said. “Most of you have therefore had to articulate to yourself a reason about why you’re studying what you’re studying.”

Kilgour emphasized the importance of studying Arts disciplines, in addition to job prospects.

“Training in the humanities is useful and leads to jobs in a wide range of fields,” Kilgour said. “Our adaptability and creativity, are valued highly [….] Studying in the humanities encourages us to question a world in which everything is increasingly measured in terms of economy and efficiency; it asks us to think about what it means to be human today.”

Panellists and audience members advocated that humanities are taught most effectively in smaller environments that allow for discussion and participation—environments that have been notably reduced at McGill after last year’s budget cuts.

Mark Weissfelner, U3 Arts, explained that oversized classes pose threats to the humanities experience.

“After the first semester [at McGill], I was in almost exclusively classes with over 100 or 150 students, and the experience was just horrid,” Weissfelner said. “In the second semester, I managed to get into a smaller upper-level course; it was the one saving grace of the year and that’s why I decided to continue with my studies.”

The event also included an open discussion in which audience members could voice their opinions. Panellist Alexander McAuley, a PhD candidate and Classics lecturer, spoke in favour of interdisciplinary discussions.

“I think it was great to have the chance to break down the departmental divides and have people from English, philosophy, communications, art history, etc., sit in the same room and talk about the same questions head on,” McAuley said. “It’s one of the few times that we address them in a very direct and honest manner.”

Participants had an overall positive impression of the event.

“[It was a] very thought-provoking event,” Weissfelner said. “Some of the perspectives offered, especially by the students present, were magnificent.”

Others felt the series would have benefitted from involving a wider audience.

“This is a great forum to have, and it’s a fantastic opportunity to sit down and discuss these things, but I think that we always run the risk of just preaching to the choir,” McAuley said. “The idea is that we have to start engaging with people outside the humanities and broadening this a little bit more.”

Kilgour explained that she came up with the idea for “McGill for Humanities” relatively recently, and she’s thought about organizing more events promoting humanities next year that could be planned further in advance.

“This was all very improvisational,” said Kilgour. “Basically, I got who I could get [to speak]. I don’t know if I would do it in exactly the same form, but it might be good to have a couple of conversations and try to widen it.”