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Despite Decrease in Concentrators, Students and Faculty Alike Defend the Humanities

Barker Center is home to several humanities concentrations.
Barker Center is home to several humanities concentrations. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Maribel Cervantes and Vivi E. Lu, Contributing Writers

For Brammy Rajakumar ’23, pursuing a joint concentration in English and Chemistry was an easy choice.

Rajakumar, an inactive Crimson news editor, was one of more than 1,300 sophomores to declare their concentration last month. She said she wanted to merge her passion for the humanities with an ultimate desire to pursue a career in medicine.

She realized she could achieve her goal after taking Humanities 10a: “A Humanities Colloquium: From Homer to Valeria Luiselli” and Humanities 10b: “A Humanities Colloquium: From James Joyce to Homer,” two introductory survey courses in literature and expository writing.

“I was able to get a lot of experiences and background knowledge for my humanities interests from Hum 10,” Rajakumar said, referring to the courses and “I really took to heart the combination of STEM and humanities.”

She is now one of the leaders of the “Hum Alum” program, which helps freshmen navigate the humanities at Harvard by providing insights into wide-ranging topics such as class and career choices.

Yet, despite the popularity of courses like Hum 10, humanities departments have found themselves with fewer concentrators each year; contrastingly, students have increasingly flocked to concentrations like Economics and Computer Science.

“As is true nationally, at Harvard, the humanities have struggled to maintain their historical levels of concentrators since around 2008,” Dean of the Arts and Humanities Robin E. Kelsey said.

‘On the Decline’

Of the 18 concentrations in the Arts and Humanities division, 10 have experienced significant decreases in numbers of concentrators, six remained relatively steady, and two saw slight increases between 2015 and 2019.

“The concentration numbers in the humanities have been on the decline in the College, and that's just something that's just been a reality for some time,” said Courtney Bickel Lamberth, director of undergraduate studies in Comparative Study of Religion.

For concentrations with smaller numbers of students, however, trends alone are not enough to predict the number of concentrators in future years.

Gojko J. Barjamovic, director of undergraduate studies in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, said looking at numeric trends is not as helpful for his department, which has had fewer than 10 concentrators for the past five years.

“We have had sort of a slight increase in the number of concentrators over the last five years. But we're dealing with such low numbers,” Barjamovic said. “Counting numbers doesn't make all that much sense.”

In contrast, faculty in other fields noted an increase in the number of students who choose to do secondaries and joint concentrations in the humanities.

Music professor Suzannah Clark said that relatively easy requirements allowed new students to explore their interests through secondaries in Music.

“A broader range of students are getting secondaries, and they're doing a broader range of things in order to get their secondary,” Clark said.

According to Linguistics professor Kathryn Davidson, her department has found that students are able to explore their interests from an “interdisciplinary” perspective through secondary fields.

Still, as interdisciplinary studies become more common, the numbers of students concentrating solely in the humanities remains in flux. Despite the risk of future decline, Bernhard Nickel, the director of undergraduate studies in Philosophy said he is not concerned about concentration numbers in the Philosophy department.

“For a lot of students, it’d be wonderful if they took three, four, five courses in Philosophy, and used the tools that they can learn in Philosophy courses and took them elsewhere,” he said. “Our work really has been much more garnering that kind of interest, as opposed to trying to increase the raw concentration numbers, because having about 30 to 35 students is a really nice size for us.”

Missing the ‘Spontaneous Word of Mouth’

Kelsey said the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a “challenging year for every concentration,” as they all experienced lower numbers as compared to previous years. This decrease is particularly noticeable in humanities concentrations, according to Kelsey, who noted concerns that students may have about their career prospects.

“I think the more anxious people are in the world about their financial futures — the more precarious they feel materially — the more challenging they may find it to commit themselves to a humanities concentration,” Kelsey said.

Debra J. Levine, director of undergraduate studies for Theater, Dance, and Media, said the pandemic has affected not only concentration numbers but also the program’s techniques for reaching out to students.

“It was much easier when a student took a class in Farkas Hall, meandered into my office and just started to talk about their interests, and realized that they could do this,” Levine said. “Having something in real life and centralized is really helpful.”

Kathy Richman, director of undergraduate studies in Romance Languages and Literatures, agreed.

“I think the spontaneous word of mouth doesn't happen as easily right now,” she said.

Although the pandemic has presented challenges to concentrations across the College, many humanities professors remain optimistic about the learning opportunities virtual education can provide.

“It has been fairly successful, but it does make demands on everybody,” Peter K. Bol, professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, said of the online teaching.

Ruth S. Lingford, director of undergraduate studies for Art, Film, and Visual Studies, said faculty in her department have found creative solutions to the challenges of online learning during the pandemic.

“It's true we really miss our wonderful studios and our wonderful film equipment,” she said. “But at the same time, when we're shipping equipment out to students remotely, we're finding ways of teaching effectively in a remote setting.”

Kelsey said humanities students and faculty have worked diligently to overcome the limitations of online learning.

“We are using this time of the pandemic to do a lot of innovative thinking about the future of the humanities at Harvard,” he said.

‘Humanities Add Value to Every Life’

Though many faculty and students cited concerns about humanities concentrations not being conducive to career opportunities, other students and faculty disputed this claim and defended the value of the humanities in providing analytical skills necessary in the job market.

Audrey N. Dilgarde ’22, a Romance Languages and Literatures concentrator, said following her passions has not negatively impacted a potential business career.

“It certainly hasn't hindered any opportunities. I've never been laughed out of a room because I study RLL and not Economics,” Dilgarde said.

Joseph F. Nagy ’74, the interim chair of Folklore and Mythology, agreed that concentrating in the humanities does not automatically hinder career prospects for students.

“The range of careers and the range of ways in which people found familiarity with the study of folklore mythology is really quite remarkable,” Nagy said. “It forms a very sturdy underpinning to a lot of fascinating career trajectories.”

Richman, the Romance Languages and Literature director of undergraduate studies, argued the humanities can provide students with a flexible background for the changing job market.

“You learn to analyze and write well, and those skills are valuable in any career or in any field,” Richman said.

Kelsey said a goal of the Arts and Humanities Division is to add value to every student’s college experience, regardless of passions or concentrations.

“The humanities are not simply for people who are going to become professional humanists,” Kelsey said. “Humanities add value to every life. And they add a value that sticks with people from cradle to grave.”

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