A Message from Heather Hewett and Stacy Hartman

It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this that universities and colleges are difficult institutions to change. They are designed to resist momentary trends and fleeting fashions. This has made them, at least to our present moment, stable and enduring. But it also renders them vulnerable to stagnation and irrelevancy if those of us who work within them do not find ways to bend with the times and innovate to serve students, faculty, and the broader public. 

For the past six months, the two of us have had the pleasure of speaking to a number of people who are engaged in the work of programmatic and curricular innovation in the humanities and interpretive social sciences at a range of institutions of higher education and scholarly societies. The people we spoke with have founded new degree programs or significantly transformed existing degree programs to better serve the needs of students at all levels, both undergraduate and graduate. From those conversations, we have learned five lessons that we would like to share as we unveil this evolving collection of stories of innovation and success in higher education.

Below are just a few examples of these programs, and we hope that you will explore the broader collection of stories.

1. Focus on what your students need.

Whether they are undergraduates seeking an applied degree or graduate students who need to embrace options beyond the professoriate, take seriously the expressed needs of your students. Doing so may lead you in unexpected directions. As you undertake this work, consider consulting pedagogical resources made available from scholarly societies.

After attending a workshop on the future of the PhD held by the Modern Language Association in 2020, faculty in the Department of English at Brandeis decided to overhaul their PhD to be more student-centered. They focused on needs that had been expressed by both students and alumni: a degree program that could be completed within five years; an experiential component, such as an internship; and more flexibility in the skills students acquired on the way to their degree. Although this meant less graduate student support for classes and for faculty research, the faculty agreed that student needs were paramount. The result is a flexible degree that is much more democratic and opens the door to many more different kinds of students. 

Understanding college from a student perspective—which includes thinking about students before they arrive on campus and after they leave—can help faculty and administrators determine what students need and what they want. At the University of Washington, surveys revealed that incoming undergraduates didn’t know what the word “humanities” meant, even though many of them were interested in humanistic fields of study. Surveys also showed that students needed a better understanding of the possibilities of life and work after graduating with a degree in the humanities. These insights propelled the Division of Humanities to create new interdisciplinary classes and cultivate community for their humanities students.

2. Create, strengthen, and leverage relationships.

Humanities faculty are often accustomed to working independently, and that independence is often one of the things we relish about our work. However, problems often require more than one form of expertise to solve. Many of the programs we’ve profiled have built strong relationships to address different types of problems.

With support from the School of Public Health and Interfaith America, the department of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida has created a minor in Religion and Health that largely serves students from disciplines outside the humanities. The core course for the minor attracts hundreds of students, who report that they are often able to implement what they learn immediately in clinical settings. Interfaith America worked with program faculty to materially support the creation of case studies for a major textbook, World Religions for Healthcare Professionals, which is used across the country. 

The Interdisciplinary Co-Lab at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) brings together humanities faculty, humanities students, and STEM students to work together on a substantive project—often for a community partner—for four weeks in the summer. The students are able to learn together and work together in a group setting that feels authentic; many alumni of the program, particularly from historically marginalized backgrounds, report that the experience increases their sense of belonging at UMBC. Meanwhile, faculty members report that the Co-Lab comprises some of the most satisfying teaching of their careers.

3. Design backwards from the outcomes you want.

Curricula––especially if they have not been redesigned in many years––are sometimes more of a hodgepodge of topics than a considered roadmap to what students need to learn. Beginning with the end—the learning outcomes, skills, and competencies you want for your students when they graduate—can be a powerful place to start when designing or redesigning a curriculum. Often, scholarly societies can provide guidelines and resources about disciplinary outcomes and skills as well as perspectives on where fields are going and how they are changing.  

At James Madison University, the process of revising the curriculum in the History Department enabled faculty to think about the range of skills, competencies, and habits of mind they wanted for their students. After conducting surveys of their students and researching current guidelines from the American Historical Association, faculty decided to create a new curriculum focused on skills, methods, and context, rather than dates and epochal coverage. The new History Studio provides opportunities for digital humanities work, and advanced coursework has shifted from focusing on product to process, with more emphasis on primary source literacy and skills than the production of a thesis.

The Department of Anthropology at The Ohio State University embarked on a journey in 2017 to redesign its PhD to be more student-centered. Having done a review of their alumni and realized that only one-third were in tenure-track jobs, the department realized that they needed to re-align the program’s structure with the needs of entering students. The result is a program designed to be completed in 5 years––50% less than the national average of 7.5 for the field––and intended to prepare students for a mix of careers both in the academy and beyond.

4. Frame your discipline in terms of what it offers non-specialists.

The academic humanities have long excelled in producing scholars with deep expertise in particular subject areas. However, we have sometimes struggled to explain what our theories and methods can offer to those outside our disciplines. A number of the programs we profiled began the process of curricular design or redesign by thinking about how students outside the humanities might benefit from substantive exposure to humanities content. 

At Ohio Wesleyan University, reimagining the Classics major began with thinking about large questions that would interest a wide range of students and faculty. Focusing on what the field can offer non-specialists enabled faculty to design a cluster of courses that were rooted in Classics and addressed current concerns.This approach simultaneously removed some of the field’s gatekeeping barriers that have long been the topic of disciplinary conversations and critiques. The new major is highly flexible and interdisciplinary, and class enrollments and majors are on the rise.

A number of medical humanities programs and minors have cropped up to address the needs of students in majors such as pre-med, nursing, pharmacology, and public health. The medical humanities minors at the University of Arkansas and Boston College are two such programs. In both cases, the majority of enrolled students are not humanities majors. However, faculty at both institutions have found that students in the health sciences are hungry for humanities content that contextualizes and lends greater meaning to the work they are doing in their majors.

5. Consider the power of bringing together disciplines and schools to create new areas of study.

Interdisciplinarity offers new approaches to pressing problems and topics that students are often interested in studying from multiple angles. Applied degree programs, in particular, can benefit from the multitude of methods that result from inter- and multidisciplinary collaborations. 

The department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech is an interdisciplinary department that grew out of several unrelated humanities departments that had been combined at the behest of the administration. Although such changes are often met with resistance, they also present opportunities to those that embrace them. When the Religion and Culture faculty decided to create a second major in Humanities for Public Service, after realizing that many of their Religion and Culture majors were going on to such careers, they capitalized on the inherently interdisciplinary nature of their department. Furthermore, they drew on applied courses in other departments, and found faculty allies who were happy to allow the cross-listing of courses, as it encouraged their own enrollment. 

At Arizona State University, administrators and faculty began with some of the big themes they saw in many classes across campus to create a new major in Culture, Technology, and Environment (CTE). Through a collaborative process, they were able to create transdisciplinary connections that addressed some of the big questions and issues that students and faculty care deeply about. Two core courses ground the major, which is rounded out by electives offered in other departments; a CTE-themed course from the Humanities Lab and a capstone project provide opportunities for experiential and hands-on learning. After an initial pilot year, the major will become available online in fall 2024.

Innovation in Action

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