I have taught humanities courses in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) institutions for more than four years. You sometimes hear faculty members teaching science and technology making fun of the pointlessness of your existence. These guys come to the office, read irrelevant stuff, drink lots of tea, teach some pointless things in their classes and go home. Do they deserve what they are given?
Sometimes, students also give us the sense that they think of the humanities classes as a time to relax. I think perhaps it’s a good thing to relax in a world that is increasingly stressing them out with dozens of assessments for each course every semester. But yes, we, humanities faculty members, also have to run our assessments. We are not exactly running counselling and psychological services.
In this brief article, I want to show that the humanities scholars have a very significant role to play in STEM institutions.
One of the key skills students learn from the humanities courses is that of careful reading and writing. Close reading or active reading or reading for details is a skill that is as necessary for science and technology students as they are for the humanities students. Similarly, who can claim to have had a meaningful education if they do not develop the ability to write about something with clarity? Going beyond clear writing, a student also should be able to write what makes their work different or unique. That calls for a confident, non-submissive approach to thinking and acquiring knowledge.
In addition, developing one’s skills for reading and writing has a political purpose also. David Bleich, in The Double Perspective, a provocative work on language and education, points out that classrooms transform into workshops of democracy as everyone reads each other’s works. The radical move here is that the instructor also writes an essay on the topic assigned to the students and the students get to read that too in addition to the essays of their fellow learners.
What is striking about human beings is that as a species, we are obsessed about representing our experience of the world around us. (The philosopher Ian Hacking uses the expression “Homo Depictor” to describe our species in his book Representing and Intervening.) That is what we learn from all the artistic productions starting from the earliest cave paintings (made about 50,000 years ago) to the multifarious productions of our times. We evolved multiple forms of representations and combinations of these forms, without which science and technology of the modern day wouldn’t have evolved. The creativity and imagination involved in scientific discoveries and technological innovations stand testament to this. Since arts and humanities education is primarily about types and interpretations of representation, it is plain silly to exclude these subjects in scientific and technological institutions.
There is a widespread view that science is a ‘pure’ pursuit of truth. By ‘pure’, I mean that it is not connected to anything external to the conceptual world of science. But a moment’s reflection would show us that science is influenced by several institutions and agents such as governments, religions, defence organisations and personal commitments. For example, the science studies scholar and biologist Banu Subramaniam in her 2019 work Holy Science shows how scientific accounts of concepts such as sexuality and environment are affected by religious views and political positions. The defence-related commitments that nation states have and how they are connected to the practice of science is an entire topic in itself. Just think of the research done to develop weapons and mass surveillance systems.
Humanities scholars nowadays also study the reasons for the massive growth in technology. It’s now well-understood that technology is not merely applied science, but a detailed response from inventors and corporations to the ever-changing needs of human beings. We would also notice that corporations also create a lot of new needs for human beings. This is one fertile domain of enquiry for humanities and social science scholars in STEM institutions.
The humanities and social science scholars in STEM institutions can also address the serious problem of exclusion of minorities of various kinds in their institutions. Sometimes, their involvement is misunderstood as mere advocacy. There are also works on how the nature of knowledge itself changes as more women and minorities enter into scientific research. For example, see the works of Evelyn Fox Keller and Banu Subramaniam. This is because the kind of observations made and the explanations given would change when the demographics of the practitioners of science change.
This is written partially in response to an article that appeared in LiveWire a few days ago. I felt that it gave an incomplete and soft view of what the humanities scholars can do in “technical” institutions. What I try to show is that we can live and work with a greater amount of self-respect in STEM institutions.
Jobin M. Kanjirakkat is trained in the humanist approaches to science and technology. He has taught courses to science and technology students in government and private institutions.