The Divide Between the Humanities and STEM

When I was an undergraduate student, I majored in Radio-Television-Film (RTF). Much like the author of this BBC article, my decision was greeted with skepticism. I wasn’t planning to work in the film industry, so people often wondered why I would major in RTF. When I chose to pursue a humanities degree in graduate school, my decision was met with similar skepticism. My graduate work has been in communication, so people asked incredulously, “You’re learning to help people communicate better?” People often doubt the value of a humanities degree, and this doubt is often fomented on campuses themselves. The goal of a liberal education is to create well-rounded students, but campus geography and course requirements often de-emphasize this.

Campus geography can contribute to the barrier between STEM and the humanities. On my campus, the liberal arts and STEM departments are literally separated by a busy street. There is little reason for a humanities graduate student to cross the street to go the North Quad, where the STEM departments reside. Likewise, STEM graduate students have access to all the coffee shops and libraries they need on the North Quad, meaning they don’t need to go to the Quad. This physical barrier emphasizes the difference between these degree paths. Students even refer to STEM students collectively as “the North Quad.” Recently, the North Quad has been the recipient of grants and upgrades, while the humanities buildings are aging. For a humanities graduate student, this is a clear signal that the humanities do not matter. We do not produce the grants or research that would prompt the university to build us a shiny, new building. For STEM graduate students, it reinforces that they are empirically better than their humanities counterparts.

Beyond the geographical divisions, STEM and humanities students are divided through coursework. They rarely take the same classes, so are unlikely to run into each other in an academic setting. If a STEM student has to take a humanities class as a general education requirement, they may also write it off because it is not part of their major. Likewise, many humanities students are reluctant to take math and science classes because they fear failing. This contributes to the myth that these students have nothing to contribute to one another’s education. This is an insult to the idea of a liberal education. I have taught Public Speaking since 2012. At the University of Illinois, Public Speaking is required by many majors across campus. My classroom is often a mix of majors from business to English to agricultural engineering. Students pick their own topics for their speeches. This exposes students to unfamiliar ideas and topics. Students might learn about genetically modified meat in the same class that they learn about how women are paid less in the film industry. Beyond the diversity of speech topics, I also favor in-class activities as a teaching method. Through in-person interactions, students can build ties across campus and come to a new appreciation for different majors.

Some universities have recognized the importance of connecting the humanities and STEM. Purdue’s Cornerstone program is an attempt to bring the liberal arts and STEM together through undergraduate coursework. At the University of Illinois, I have worked with a program called Engineers Skills for Presenting Engineering and Applied Knowledge (SPEAK). Through the program, communication and engineering graduate students work together to prepare senior engineering undergraduates for a presentation of their final projects in an engineering course. The presentation is the culmination of a semester of designing and building an engineering project. This may be one of the few times that these students see the expertise of humanities graduate student legitimized within a STEM environment. This demonstrates to those students that they need communication skills, in addition to their technical expertise.

While there is some evidence that the divide between humanities and STEM may be waning, there is also evidence that that divide continues to be firm. As a union organizer, I have seen how this divide affects the ability of graduate unions to organize on campus. STEM graduate employees are often reluctant to join the union because they believe it mostly benefits humanities graduate students. Yet, STEM graduate employees are not immune from employment problems. A few years ago, the union won a major arbitration protecting graduate employees’ right to have a tuition waiver under our union contract. The union challenged a Department of Computer Science policy that violated the tuition waiver clause in our contract. Under the policy, students in the Master of Computer Science (MCS) degree program were told that they were ineligible for tuition waiver-generating appointments, such as teaching assistantships, in their department. If the students sought an appointment from another department, the other department would have to pay the student’s tuition, instead of the student receiving a tuition waiver. This turned the waiver from a benefit into a cost of employment. The students affected were mostly international students, who had expected to receive an appointment. When they did not, they had to pay the international tuition rate to complete their degrees. Unfortunately, despite our track record of protecting STEM students, STEM graduate employees often see the union as the domain of the humanities. This makes it hard to find out when there are employment problems in STEM departments.

Universities cultivate these divides on campus through geography, research, and teaching. Fighting for the value of a liberal education requires addressing the walls that have been built between the humanities and STEM. Education is not complete when it ignores other ways of thinking and learning.