STEM poses challenges for humanities

Jon Balzotti is a BYU English professor. He said studying the humanities gives students a unique perspective on life. (Madalyn McRae)

The projected salary for an engineering graduate in 2017 was $66,097. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, computer scientists fresh out of college were expected to make a little over $65,000, and new math and science professionals were expected to earn a little over $59,000.

On the other end of the scale, the predicted salary for 2017 humanities graduates was $48,733 — more than $10,000 less compared to the lowest predicted salary for graduates from the science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) fields.

Similarly, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences reported in 2017 that the number of humanities bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2015 had decreased 5 percent from 2014 and almost 10 percent from 2012.

The author of an “Inside Higher Ed” article addressing this issue wrote that declines in the humanities may be “due in part to trends that even humanities scholars applaud, such as the opening up of science and technology fields to women.”

The push for individuals — especially women — to pursue careers in STEM has caused some to proclaim “the death of the humanities.”

But are the humanities really in crisis mode? Frank Christianson, associate dean in the BYU College of Humanities, doesn’t think so.

“The emphasis on STEM in the last decade or so has posed a challenge to the humanities, but I see it as a healthy challenge,” he said.

He said the STEM-saturated world has caused the disciplines in the College of Humanities — foreign languages, English, comparative arts and letters, linguistics and philosophy — to make more of an effort to define what they do and what they can offer college students.

BYU English professor Jon Balzotti offered a more specific view of what STEM has done to the humanities.

“It’s encouraged the humanities to think about the ways they can explore the professionalization of their students,” he said.

Balzotti said thinkers in the humanities see themselves as participating in the movement toward technology and science.

The BYU Digital Humanities program, which incorporates technology skills training into the study of the humanities, is an example of the two realms coming together, according to Balzotti.

The college also offers the Humanities+ program, which encourages students to seek internships, mentored research opportunities and professional minors to prepare for the workforce.

“In a rapidly changing world,” the Humanities+ website states, “it is important to gain a broad education that will be applicable in a multitude of contexts and throughout a lifetime.”

Sherami Jara, assistant dean in the BYU College of Humanities and director of Humanities Advisement and Careers, said the college doesn’t discourage humanities majors from getting a technical background.

“If anything, (technical backgrounds) will open up opportunities for them,” she said.

Jara also said humanities majors are trained in skills such as writing critically, speaking persuasively and processing information and data.

“Those are skills that STEM majors aren’t typically being trained to fine tune and to work through and to focus on,” she said, though she noted this isn’t the case for all STEM majors.

Jara said the college considers skills such as writing and communicating as professional competencies.

“This current workforce requires something more of students than what it has required in the past. It requires a real balance on both sides,” Jara said. “There’s value and competencies that come from both of those sides that employers care about.”

Though professionalization is being pushed for in the humanities, Balzotti said the field is still unique. It teaches students to appreciate life and experience, to have an interest in the arts and a love for learning, and to examine history and culture.

“To see it as a deficit in the humanities would be a mistake,” Balzotti said of the emphasis on STEM. “I think it encourages us to re-examine those differences and those arbitrary separations between our fields.”

Christianson said the world of work is changing so students need to consider not just what job they want to have in the future but what problems they want to tackle as professionals.

“That’s a radically different mindset than what the last two to three generations of people have had as they’ve gone through college,” he said.

Christianson said it is important for students to find ways to actively develop professional competencies when they enter their major — especially if it requires taking action to get involved in extracurriculars like volunteering or a study abroad.

“As early as possible, have that broader view. You are the architect of your career,” Christianson said. “Begin building it from the get go.”

Christianson also said he recently spoke to a female humanities major who said she felt there was a lot of pressure for women to major in STEM.

“Find success studying what you love,” he said. “Women students have just as much of an opportunity to professionalize themselves in the humanities as they do in the STEM fields.”

Sarah Skriloff, a senior graduating this April with her degree in sociology, will begin working as a program manager for Microsoft in June.

She originally came to BYU for industrial design, but a boss noticed she really enjoyed user research and encouraged her to pursue the liberal arts.

Skriloff chose sociology “to get good at research and good at understanding people,” she said.

Jara said humanities majors like Skriloff go into many fields, not just teaching and writing.

“We feel optimistic that a student who is intentional about their experience and understands the competencies that they’re building has just as much of a chance of having a successful career as anyone,” Jara said.

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