Traister: Time to Study

By Bryce Traister 

A recent Statscan study reports that 30% of 2011 university graduates with “Humanities degrees” are “over-qualified,” ie., they use their English degrees to make coffee confections. 

Further, as this paper reports it: A Statistics Canada study, released Wednesday, found that even as the percentage of university graduates has risen over the past two decades, the proportion that is overqualified has remained stable. 

Pundits are calling for university students to stop studying the wrong things, and only study the right things. The right things are, more or less, what used to be called “professional degrees,” which meant they prepared students to successfully acquire a specific credential required to practice the career. Accounting, Teaching, Nursing, Engineering, Architecture; unsurprisingly, the same study which found only a 70% “fit” between degree and occupation for Humanities graduates, found closer to an 85% fit with those specific degree/career occupations. 

The less remarked upon revelation of the Statscan study is the fact these percentages haven’t changed in twenty years, even though the actual number of university degree holders has increased by something like 40%. So if in 1991, only 700 of 1000 Humanities graduates had employment in their degree area, in 2011 some 890 Humanities grads had what Statscan and others deem appropriate employment. If one accepts that the employment economy today is worse in some ways than it was 20 years ago, then it seems that an equally reasonable inference to draw from the Statscan study is that more Humanities graduates than ever before have gainful employment three years out from graduation—and in a worse economy than their predecessors faced, to hear the pundits telling it. 

But of course, nobody is drawing this inference: bashing the humanities and the people who study them is much easier to do in a soundbite. Nobody has seriously called the entire methodology of the study into question either, which one could quite easily do. For example, one of the degrees enjoying 85% “qualified” employment—Teaching—is a professional degree that requires a big helping, and usually two helpings, of liberal arts education. And yet the teachers are part of the success story Statscan wants to tell, even though, for every last one of them, liberal arts (including Humanities) study is a requirement for the credential in the first place. 

Arguing with studies like this only gets one so far. The bigger problem is in the back of this study’s concoction and reception. It is a belief that the value of a university degree resides entirely and only in a graduate’s starting salary for the job they start the day after they walk across the stage and collect their diploma. This value only lasts for three years from that time. In spite of study after study, one employer and employee survey after another demonstrating the desirability of communication and critical thinking skills as among the most desirable traits a starting employee can bring to the table, politicians and their pundits trot out the line that universities and students need to focus on “job ready skills” to the exclusion of all else. 

Given how expensive a university education has become, one can understand the anxiety of parents and students about getting “value” from an education. One could, almost, forgive the politicians for demanding that universities get in line with the Job-Skills U crowd—but then, they’re the ones directly responsible for shifting the responsibility of paying for university education from the government to individuals. To these people, and to those students who want to study something that actually interests them and for which they have some natural talent, rather than something that will “get them a job” I have one word for you: relax

More specifically: first, tell your parents (and their favorite media pundits) to relax and get over their incessant need to plan your lives, make all of your choices for you, and demand that you assume their worries as yours. Second, study what you love. Third, succeed in that undertaking. The relation of #2 to #3 cannot be overstated, for their successful prosecution will produce that confident, independent, problem-solving, self-starting person that most employers like to hire, in spite of their holding an Art History degree. How you study, and the person who comes out of that, is far, far more important than what you study. 

Study what you love; succeed in what you study; all of the rest will follow. It may take awhile, and you may make some lattes on the way, but that isn’t the fault of your degree choice. It just means you haven’t gotten there yet.


Bryce Traister is an Associate Professor and the Chair of the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University

Milde: Debate not aided by sweeping, misdirected judgments

By Michael Milde, Dean Faculty of Arts & Humanities at Western, October 10, 2013
Benjamin Tal and Emanuella Enenajar don’t think students should study English, Psychology, Philosophy, History or any of the humanities. They argue these subjects are a bad investment: “And despite overwhelming evidence that one’s field of study is the most important factor determining labour market outcomes, today’s students have not gravitated to more financially advantageous fields in a way that reflects the changing reality of the labour market.” Read more

Defending the Humanities

By Allan Pero, Professor of English and Writing Studies
Over the past few years, I have read a number of articles describing, either in the shrill tones of stern necessity, or in the staccato ones of consternated shock, the cuts being made to Humanities programs at different universities. The logic of austerity (from the Ancient Greek austeros, meaning, dry, bitter, or harsh) is being applied here. The Humanities are suffering, we are told, from being too rich, too luxurious. Read more

Why do a PhD in the Humanities?

By Allan Pero, Professor of English and Writing Studies
Why do a PhD in the Humanities? This is a question that has plagued the pages of publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education for several years now. Generally, the tone of the articles addressing this question has been gloomy, with several of them dismissing the idea outright.  Indeed, the rhetoric informing some of them is akin to “You’d be better off sticking your face in a whirring woodchipper than embarking on the madness of a PhD in that field.” Read more

Why the arts and humanities matter now more than ever

By Alison Conway, Professor of English and Writing Studies
This year I’m teaching an introductory English course for the first time in a decade. The experience so far has been both terrifying and exhilarating. Terrifying, because I decided on a syllabus whose material (mostly twentieth-century literature) lies wholly outside of my area of research expertise (the eighteenth-century British novel). Exhilarating, because my students and I are tackling questions central to the arts and humanities: What is art? Why write about it? Why is the study of literature meaningful today?

We began the course by spending a week thinking about these questions. But the conversation did not end there: we circled back to them as we moved forward over the next twelve weeks, using our literary texts to deepen our understanding of what is at stake in the study of art, to add nuance to our responses. Initially, my students looked to me to tell them what the “right” answer might be when they confronted the ethical quandary posed by, for example, by W.H. Auden’s “Musée de Beaux Arts.” But gradually they took up the gauntlet for themselves, recognizing that their role was to produce rather than consume knowledge—a role that literature, in all of its ambiguity, requires of its readers. 

My desire to convey the full significance of the course title, “Understanding Literature Today,” means that I am constantly searching for ways to link the literature we study to the political, social and cultural realities governing our twenty-first century world. Reflections on the place of Africa in Modernism’s imagination led to a discussion of the stolen Modigliani painting (rumoured to be currently housed in China) that features in Skyfall’s Shanghai sequence, of Damien Hirst’s diamond-covered skull, Vanitas, and of the traffic in “blood diamonds” and “blood minerals” in the Congo region over the past twenty years.

Horace tells us that poetry should both instruct and delight. The delight part of this equation has struck me repeatedly as I prepare classes on literature I have not read in a long time. Why does the particular kind of pleasure afforded by literature matter today? It matters because it is a pleasure gained only by sustained attention, with the discipline of focus and close study. It flexes our creative muscles, developing our own artistic selves. It brings the world around us alive with allusions and echoes as we enter into a larger, collective imagination. The pleasures afforded by the arts and humanities engage us in meaningful play, a counter to the deadening imperatives of getting and spending.

Many of my students are not enrolled in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. Some of them will never take another English course again at Western. I’ll close by quoting one of my three kinesiology students. These three have finished their degrees; they’re taking courses they need for applications to the graduate program in physiotherapy. Here’s what Marcus has to say about what he’s gained from the study of literature:

The main thing that I got out of English 1020 this semester was a different perspective with respect to literature compared to the strictly factual based views science courses generally require. This viewpoint forces me to tap into a more creative side in order to generate my own interpretation of the text. …By studying these works in greater detail and flexing the creative muscles I have really gained an appreciation of what good writing is... I think that in order to be successful in any workplace this creativity and ability to read between the lines is a valuable asset and often is forgotten in science programs. Without an active imagination, none of us will come up with adequate responses to the complex challenges facing us today. The best place to foster that imagination is in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. 

Alison Conway specializes in Restoration and eighteenth-century literature and culture, feminist theory, and the history of the novel. Conway was the 2012 recipient of the Graham and Gale Wright Distinguished Scholar Fellowship and is also the previous recipient of the Marilyn Robinson Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Seeing Double: The Relevance the Arts and Humanities Today

Patrick Mahon, Department of Visual Arts
I got my first pair of glasses when I was three years old. Apparently, I had what was called in the 1950s and perhaps still is, a “lazy eye,” a condition that causes double vision. That ostensible cross-eyed effect is sometimes represented in film as a layering of images as if in motion, suggesting that double vision looks similar to something seen by one who has just been bonked on the head! I remember as a somewhat older child, encountering more than one such “roving” image on television, including in a case where an animal (a lion?) experienced the sort of confused vision that resembled what my wandering eye afforded me. In my case, though, the hallucinatory image world occurred, you might say, “naturally,” without the dramatic incidents that seemed to befall people and animals on TV.

In my early life, my double vision needed correcting, and never did I think it was something that offered me any kind of benefit. Nonetheless, in my current role as a university professor of Arts and Humanities, I consider the metaphorical idea of “double vision” – the capacity to see twice, or perhaps doubly well – to suggest a certain kind of advantaged vision that one may actually work towards in life. As an artist-scholar (a still-spectacled one!), I think of my work as involved with advancing my own capacities, and encouraging those of my students, for seeing double: the ability to successfully “read” both written and pictorial language or understanding the interplay between language and visual culture, and how such a dynamic enriches daily experience. Of course a preoccupation with the connection (or distinction) between words and pictures is not just mine: as far back as Aristotle, thinkers have taken an interest in the shared aesthetic aspirations of poets and painters, and in the Renaissance, the implied links and competition between texts and images were much talked about according to the notion of the paragone. More recently, art and media theorist W.J.T. Mitchell and others have spoken about “iconology” and “picture theory” in attempting to understand the complex dynamics between words and images in our modern, digitally invested age. In a sense, the notion of seeing double regarding images and texts has now come to include an interest in the sort of hallucinatory flux of sensory information suggested by my early cross-eyed experiences.

As an artist and scholar, I’m interested in a double vision that demonstrates that reading narratives can lead to visualization, and that looking at pictures can be bound up with thinking and speaking in language. So, I sometimes want to ask questions that might more readily be associated with literary work when thinking about work by visual artists. I am a printmaker, and recently I have been producing wall-based, architecturally-inspired structures made of printed wood. As my new work is evolving, I increasingly think about the kinds of constructed environments and institutional settings that have formed my sense of identity as a person and as an artist: schools and universities, and churches, and homes, as examples. This has then lead me to consider the people who have helped construct my thinking and choices, including my family –especially my parents. So, when I recently happened upon a collection of essays by the remarkable contemporary Irish author, Colm Toibin, dramatically titled, New Ways to Kill your Mother: Writers and Their Families, I picked it up in the hope that it could offer another avenue for my questions as a visual artist. Indeed, Toibin’s wonderful analysis of such connections as those between W.B.Yeats’s father and that famous author’s work as a playwright, have given me license to think about how and when the structures I am making on the walls of my studio first “took shape” within me, as an artist and the child of my parents.

As an artist-scholar, seeing double allows me to bring the world of art together with the world of language and literature, and to understand my work within a vast “humanities conversation.” For my students, the capacity to begin to see double offers wonderful opportunities to become articulate within an ever-growing world of visual culture, and to ultimately move into the numerous fields and occupations (museums, marketing and promotion, filmmaking, and into work as artists, writers, and teachers) where words and pictures cross-pollinate. Seeing double, for my students and for me, means seeing more, and hopefully better, and seeing with greater clarity in a world where such capacities can become real tools for employment/survival and lifelong enrichment.

Patrick Mahon's work as a visual artist includes print-based projects that engage with historical and contemporary aspects of printmaking, and involves responding to gallery and museum collections as well as establishing community-based art initiatives, including several regarding the environment.