What Are the Humanities (II)? Or ‘who are we all?’

Yesterday’s post on trying to define the humanities got lots of clicks but no answers.  On one hand I was disappointed not to have crowd sourced The Answer, on the other deeply relieved that it’s not just me who doesn’t know.  One person confessed on Twitter that they’d clicked through in the hope someone else had solved the riddle for them but it seems the question is too tricky for that.

So I thought I’d change the terms of the discussion to see whether that loosens people’s fingers and maybe shuffles us closer towards knowing what we’re trying to represent or save.

Please use the comments section to tell the world who you are and what you’re doing and, if you can, why you think this is part of the humanities.

I’ll start: I’m a part-time PhD student in the English Literature department at the University of Reading, writing about photography and childhood.  I’m also an ex-children’s bookseller and I initially used my English Literature undergrad degree to get into tourism marketing.  This interdisciplinarity is part of why I like having the umbrella term ‘humanities’ – it suggests I don’t have to stick with one thing, it gives me a sort of permission to extend my thinking to other areas.   I also don’t do numbers – I struggle with any kind of statistics and don’t use them in any of my work.  ‘Not numbers’ seems a rather perfunctory definition though – has anyone got any advances on this?

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18 thoughts on “What Are the Humanities (II)? Or ‘who are we all?’

  1. This is cheating, rather, as I’m part of the We The Humanities team too, but nevertheless… I’m also a part-time PhD student in the English Literature department at the University of Reading, studying Transcendentalism and childhood. It is interesting that even within what is loosely termed English literature, Jess and I are studying very different things. Transcendentalism, as far as it can be defined, covers literature, philosophy, religion, education, developmental theory, feminism, anti-slavery and many other aspects which can be read as under the umbrella of humanities, but also as social discourse, theory and practice. In this respect, humanities suffuse everyday life in so many ways that those of us frustrated by the “elitist” tag would love to share with the world. And, Jess, I don’t do numbers either!

  2. I’ll have a go but I’m still quite early on in my academic journey. I have a degree in English Language and Linguistics and Comparative Literature and I am teaching English at College. At some point I would like to do my MA as i’m particularly interested in Cognitive Stylistics. I hope to get the opportunity to do a PhD at some point. I’m intrigued to see what happens here…

    • Thanks for contributing! In my view the humanities are definitely not the preserve of academia (although it’s very exciting that you’re thinking of carrying on studying – what are cognitive stylistics?)

      I’m especially interested in how you valuable you find humanities subjects to be perceived at your college.

  3. I have a PhD in English Literature, although I have a background in Comparative and General Literature, not to mention a rather eclectic undergraduate degree including History, Ancient Cultures, Comparative Religion and that sort of thing. I would definitely place myself in the Humanities, and I agree that we need the interdisciplinarity. Over the last couple of years I have been fortunate enough to work in a department consisting of linguists and historians in addition to those of us studying literature, and I love how the conversations over lunch can draw on multiple areas of expertise (never mind the research possibilities).

  4. I am a PhD student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I work on crusade preaching and ideology, and religion in the thirteenth century. I am also interested in prophesy, heretical movements, and concepts of poverty. My last institution (Western Michigan Univ.) and current one both have a fairly new humanities centers. Both emphasize the value of diverse perspectives from varied disciplines; in other words, by communicating across fields, each one is enriched. This is especially true in the study of medieval history which requires knowledge in languages, history, literature, religion, and art. It is a cornucopia of humanities!

  5. I have just finished an MA in History with the Open University. My dissertation was on women workers in engineering industries during the Second World War. My undergraduate degree was in English Literature, so like others I have studied things across the humanities – I also took some philosophy and history modules while I was an undergraduate.

    I have used statistics in some of my history research, so I’m afraid ‘not numbers’ doesn’t really cover it!

  6. I have a BSc (Hons) Physics, fulltime job in the computer industry (30 years), a long time interest in history particularly interested in what went on in peoples heads, and am a part time student on a local history course at the University pr Oxford.
    The study of history teaches useful skills e.g for decoding what may be true in current news reporting 😉

    • This is really interesting to hear – so often humanities co-opts science and it makes me wonder whether we’re looking for some kind of validation (e.g. in the recent trend of literature and science there seems to be a lot about how science can influence literature studies but not the other way around). It great to hear this is more of a two-way process than it first appeared.

  7. Hi, great website! I also look forward to hearing from the curators of the twitter account. I am a PhD candidate in natural resources and I work with people and plant harvesting. Specifically, along with my colleagues, I am working on project about people’s rights to harvest foods in forests and women’s rights to forest resources (more here http://farmsforestsfoods.blogspot.ca/).

    Thanks for the great posts!

    P.S. I see you mentioned how people were reluctant to comment. I experience that on my blog too! If you have any tips, send them my way!

  8. I’m a postdoc in Norway, working on multimodality and medieval manuscripts, but that’s not what I wanted to say here. I wanted to share a wee anecdote with you. I was chatting to a colleague in optometry who was bemoaning the fact that a certain new phenomenon has two competing opinions, both backed on empirical research: one of these can demonstrate that when A happens M happens; the other that when A happens W (the opposite of M) happens. I looked at him and said ‘and the humanist in the room says that of course both can happen, because the subjects of the research are people and everyone’s different’. He laughed and agreed with me.
    So I’d say that the clue is in the name: the humanities deal with people: what people do, what makes them do what they do, what makes them tick. It shows us that people are still people wherever and whenever they live(d) – something which is too easily forgotten in Western society’s never-ending hunt for the ‘new’.

    • Brilliant anecdote, thanks for sharing. This is similar to what I try to tell my students: that studying literature (specifically, as that’s what I teach) is about being able to question texts – usually I give e.g.s from the media and law (which half of them are studying) but perhaps I should be thinking more broadly too.

  9. I’m a part-time PhD student at Reading looking at ideas of paedophilia and the child in a range of texts and particularly interested at present in the phenomenon of what is not seen/heard. I have worked in child mental health and, at different stages, have studied both literature and science. I like words, numbers and diagrams but struggle with the idea that only what can be measured can be of significance since this approach seems to ignore aspects that cannot be counted and accounted for.

  10. I’m currently an independent scholar. My PhD is on eighteenth-century perceptions of “ancient” Scottish music (anything from the 3rd century to the childhood of the writer). Just now I’m carrying out a feasibility study to find out if I can say anything about references to music in Older Scots literature. The difficulty I find when considering the question of what the humanities are, is that I find myself focusing on what they aren’t</ – which distresses me and makes me think this discussion is well overdue! On a related note, what does anyone think about the idea "arts and humanities" – so often brought together, yet with separate terms, are the arts not then humanities?

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