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Mellon Foundation grant boosts humanities at University but anxieties persist

What is the state of the humanities at U.Va.?

Earlier this month, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded the University a $2.9 million grant to help expand humanities initiatives through a series of interdisciplinary collaborations during the next five years. This funding will provide support for these academic fields, but not everyone is confident about the usefulness of the humanities. Some students graduating with degrees in humanities disciplines have voiced concerns about their job prospects.

A collaborative conversationnItalian Prof. Cristina Della Coletta, associate dean for the arts and humanities in the College, said in an email that the Mellon grant would allow new faculty hiring and more graduate fellowships. The grant will also support the creation of graduate seminars in interdisciplinary areas like environmental humanities and comparative cultures of the pre-modern world.

The University’s newly established Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures, directed by English Prof. Michael Levenson, will play a vital role in helping faculty structure their humanities work.

“Established to study global cultures in relation to the public mission of the humanities, the Institute will be a hub for faculty, graduate and undergraduate students to reflect upon and help design collaborative programs, research initiatives and courses that will define humanities innovation across the University and well beyond it, into an increasingly interconnected and multi-cultural world,” Coletta said.

Levenson said such an institution gives faculty a chance to spark discussion across different departments.

“I think it is an extremely helpful and opportune moment for the humanities at U.Va.,” Levenson said. “We don’t define humanities to a few departments. We think there is a place for humanities everywhere.”

He said he believes the University is an excellent place to pursue a humanities education.

“I don’t think there’s a better place to pursue humanities than this University because we have so many excellent departments,” Levenson said. “We also have an atmosphere that allows students to pursue humanities.”

One of his goals for the institute includes reinvigorating conversation regarding the humanities.

“We want to make sure that everyone at the University belongs to our sense of what humanistic conversation should be and we invite everyone into that conversation,” he said.

Survival in tough timesnWith the help of the Mellon grant, humanities initiatives and the attention given to them will certainly expand, but some students think the University still has a long way to go.

Third-year College student Ben Bissell found some areas in the humanities lacking in terms of courses offered.

“One of the things I’ve really looked for is literature from conflict zones,” said Bissell, a political science and Russian major with a minor in Middle Eastern languages. “It is something we don’t really have.”

Levenson, however, said he detected no resistance to the University’s support of the humanities.

“We know these are difficult times for the humanities, but we trust ourselves, our conviction, our sense of vocation and we do believe that people in administrative offices are trying to support the humanities as well as they can,” Levenson said.

He said he believes the University will continue to remain one of the great centers for a liberal arts education.

“I think we should extend our engagement with humanistic learning and with the training of all students,” he said. “I would like all students to realize that undergrad education must involve the humanities.”

Coletta also believes the University supports and respects the humanities.

“In spite of pessimistic claims to the contrary, the humanities are alive and developing, as they shape and are being shaped by increasingly interconnected and ‘global’ cultures,” Coletta said. “Being a student in the humanities today means having the curiosity and honing the skills to be able to participate (often in multiple languages) in some of the pressing issues of our time.”

nJob marketnWith a sluggish economy, some soon-to-be-graduating students are worried about what job prospects a humanities degree will offer them.

A study released in May by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce shows that humanities training is not as economically valued as more career-focused education, however.

“What’s it Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors,” reported that recipients of a bachelor’s degree in engineering have median earnings $75,000, compared to $47,000 for people with bachelor’s degrees in humanities and liberal arts.

Fourth-year College student Sydney Taylor chose to major in French and Political Philosophy, Policy and Law rather than a pre-professional course of study. She said she wanted to pursue something of interest and did not think a pre-professional degree would be satisfying.

But Taylor is concerned about the coming year.

“I really like school, and I’m concerned that real life isn’t related to anything I’ve been learning and that I’ll be bored and working a cubicle job,” Taylor said. “I’m not sure how practical PPL is in terms of getting hired.”

Such concerns about the practicality of humanities degrees are widespread, Levenson observed.

“It is true that worldwide there are pressures encouraging and demanding that students move towards so called practical training,” Levenson said. “It is extremely important to persuade leaders that the humanities are indispensable.”

Bissell said the politics department hosts an event to show students different career paths they can pursue with a politics degree. He said he thought more humanities departments should undertake similar efforts to help students carve out a path, but that academic training in the humanities will remain relevant.

“As long as humanity continues to struggle with itself and continues to connect with the human aspects of itself, there will always be practical and lucrative aspects for humanities majors,” Bissell said.

Some students see a humanities education tied to their pre-professional degree.

Third-year Commerce student Alex Wilson said he believes he has received a holistic education because he spent two years in the College before entering the Commerce School.

Before he applied to the Commerce School, he was a Spanish major.

“I think that I still take advantage of all that the College has to offer while taking business classes,” Wilson said.

Sarah Isham, director of career services for the College, said students should choose a major they enjoy rather than basing their decision solely on potential job prospects or salary.

“I think you are going to see students in commerce and engineering with high salaries, but that depends on the path they are pursuing,” Isham said. “We would never advise a student to select a major or career path based on salary.”

As long as students market themselves professionally and are proactive, then humanities and non-humanities students alike will be marketable in the work force, she said.

“Just because you are a certain major does not necessarily dictate the track you’re on,” Isham said. “Be proactive and do as much self-assessment as you can. Assess your interests, skills and values.”

Isham said her advice for students, particularly in the humanities, is to focus on making connections, sharpening interview skills and exploring the resources available, including job shadowing, externships and career fairs.

Edward Berger, associate dean of undergraduate programs in the Engineering School, shared similar ideas regarding the value of a humanities education.

“It’s unfortunate that this perception about the humanities exists,” Berger said in an email. “The thought process and complex reasoning that a humanities education provides are both powerful and marketable skills. That’s why we encourage engineering students to participate in humanities courses, and in fact many of them earn a double major – one in engineering, one in humanities”


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