Personal Student Narratives are Key to Demonstrating the Value of a Humanities Education

A while back I posted a piece on this blog about the importance of talking to our students when attempting to assess or demonstrate the importance and value of a humanities education. This was to be the beginning of a larger project—initiated by Professor Roisin Cossar and her University of Manitoba history students—intended to open a direct conversation with students, asking them why they chose to study in the humanities/social sciences disciplines, and whether, or in what ways, they found it valuable. This conversation, it was hoped, would be founded on a range of student accounts outlining their personal experiences and assessments of their humanities education. Though anecdotal, their responses would allow instructors, along with administrators and policy makers, to better understand what is working and considered valuable in our teaching, as well as where and how things might need to be modified.

Unfortunately, to date there is only one student contribution to this project, and I do not know why. A number of reasons quickly present themselves, of course: this blog has a limited reach, students cannot be arsed to participate, faculty lack either the time or inclination to encourage their students to take part, or perhaps some hopeless combination of all of these reasons is at work. It is hard to be sure, but whatever the case I have not lost confidence in the potential value of this project. The lack of response has prompted me to reassess it, however, and endeavour to better outline its merits, as they may not be so obvious.

Indeed, given the current trend towards the marketization of universities, I can easily see how some might instinctively oppose a project showcasing what students themselves value and consider useful in their education, rejecting it as a near total capitulation to the pressures of the neo-liberal university and the logic of customer satisfaction. Such opposition is understandable. Certainly studies of both the American and Australian contexts suggest that the commodification of higher education and the redefinition of students as consumers, is leading to increased student complaints that university subjects are too hard and too demanding, as well as mounting student pressure on academics to reduce their demands.

Further, many suspect that universities are reinforcing the notion that students ought to behave like consumers by placing so much emphasis on the importance of their voices: students are expected to complete standardized evaluations for every course they take, and are installed on any number of staff-student liaison committees. These are not intrinsically bad things and I agree that they have they have their uses. Clearly, I also agree that student voices should be heard. However, by devoting so much attention to the question of student experience the way they do, institutions help convey the idea, however subtly or unintentionally, that the purpose of higher education is customer satisfaction. Who, then, can be surprised when students increasingly reconceive themselves as consumers and behave accordingly? Unquestionably, these are very real trends that ought to concern everyone interested in the effectiveness and integrity of higher education.

Even so, some care and a discerning eye are needed. The neo-liberal university’s pre-occupation with student experience and the ways it attempts to quantify it may be problematic, but this should not lead its critics to focus only on the negative aspects of this emphasis. To do so is to neglect a number of valuable insights that student-experience surveys can provide. For instance, a survey of first-year students in Australia (as there is no comparable Canadian data), indicates that students who spent the fewest days on campus were also least likely to ask questions in class or contribute to class discussions. Conversely, those students who typically spent four to five days a week on campus were significantly more likely to study and discuss course material with other students, to meaningfully connect with their instructors, and to generally feel as though they belonged to the “university” and its community.

These findings may not seem particularly surprising, though I am not sure the connections between the various factors are as obvious as they appear once they have been made. In any case, it is useful to have them clearly drawn out. It is also not difficult to imagine how those trends might replicate themselves elsewhere, like an often-overcrowded commuter campus such as ours. This is not a cheap dig at the U of M. It is simply meant to highlight how broad surveys of student experience can help an instructor better recognize how certain outside circumstances operate in the classroom, and profitably modify her or his approach. In light of the intense criticisms commonly levelled against student surveys, it seems worth noting that they can present some pedagogically valuable findings.

Of course, even if one rightly appreciates the value of some of the information contained in student surveys—there is still plenty of reason to also feel decidedly uneasy about them. After all, however useful, data like that just cited is still a product of the characteristically dull empirical work that drives what Richard Hil calls “the great student surveyathon,” and what he sees as the contemporary neo-liberal university’s misplaced faith in the measures and metrics of student satisfaction. Whatever insights they might provide, the questions posed in university surveys read and feel quite a lot like those asked in surveys administered by cell phone providers or restaurant chains. On the whole, they seem much more concerned with brand power and market share than with learning. The reticence and suspicion such surveys generate among certain quarters, then, do not come from nowhere and are often well founded, if also sometimes expressed in a shrill and arrogant tone.

And thus we arrive at the essential point, for it is precisely the shallow questioning and obvious market motivations behind the “surveyathon” that makes individual student narrative accounts so important and valuable. They breathe life, and provide vital but elusive existential insights, into a series of complex issues. It is true that, like standard university surveys, the ultimate goal of the project under discussion includes gaining insights into the expectations of today’s university students, what they want, and how they experience the modern university. But its driving interest is in understanding how well students engage with the intellectual challenge of learning, the sorts of connections they make with their instructors and peers, and ultimately what, exactly, they have personally come to value in their education. For all of the mountains of data, for all of the charged political debates swirling around these crucial questions, the reality is that neither supporters of the neo-liberal approach to higher education, nor its critics, have a clear understanding of these fundamental issues. The project being proposed can help.

There is another, related reason to recommend this project, and that is that it promises to provide a compelling response to the (often angry) accusations and insults so frequently directed against the humanities and social science disciplines. You know the ones. They often flow out of the seemingly incontestable calls for “utility” and “accountability,” and flatly declare that the humanities and social science disciplines are devoid of social value and are therefore intolerable luxuries. At their worst, they also present those who study in these fields as lazy, out-of-touch dodgers, if not elitist, politically correct crusaders leading a misguided assault on common sense and “ordinary people.” These are obviously charged, highly politicized claims, and represent little more a stock of knee-jerk clichés kicked out by a shallow, unthinking cynicism. They ought to have little bearing on how education is funded or on education policy frameworks. Unfortunately, they have remarkable currency in these days of austerity and retrenchment, and make it very difficult to refocus the terms of debate in an informed and productive manner. Accusations of uselessness are powerful—and dangerous, largely because they are also often merely commonsensical. That is, they are commonly rooted in an emotional, impressionistic “truthiness” that is not easily phased by reason or evidence.

Once again, however, I think student narratives can help. We know our students. We know that many will affirm the interest and value of studying in the humanities, and that the value identified will take a variety of forms that often will not be immediately associated with either money or profession. Theirs is an important message everyone should hear: politicians, university administrators, the public, even other students and academics themselves. It is time we make an effort to push back against the “truthy” insistence that a humanities education has little value and does not provide viable professional preparation. Aside from failing to recognize that value comes in many forms, this persistent popular suspicion is simply wrong.

The world of the twenty-first century is far too sophisticated and complex for cheap clichés to continue to carry the argument. But if we want to change the terms of debate we need to make some moves. We will also need help, and in this case who better to provide it than our students, who are ultimately the best evidence of the value of what we do. And on this score we happen to be quite lucky, for despite frequent media claims to the contrary, today’s students are talented, engaged, and flat out impressive. Even a quick look around the world or in our local community reveals a remarkable range of student-led initiatives: be it students marching for their lives against the NRA and the Washington swamp, or, more locally, fighting for the quality and integrity of their education during the 2016 U of M faculty strike, or reimagining notions of ecology, equity and the economy, or having crucial access to indigenous languages. This is just a quickly compiled sample, but it still helps demonstrate that the value of studying the humanities and social sciences cannot seriously be questioned.  So, let’s try something new, get our students involved, and not allow it to be.

Paul Jenkins, University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities

April 6, 2018

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